Bremerton Doesn't Need Two Auto Ferries. Just Ask the Navy

Photo by Renee McMahon
When Washington State Ferries announced a long-term plan to reduce Bremerton service to one boat, and eliminate evening service, (called Plan B), Kitsap residents and their state representatives let their collective knee jerk. WSF eventually retracted revised the proposal, but that didn't stop a group of elected officials and concerned riders to draft their own "Plan C," which effectively preserves the status quo as far as routes and service are concerned.

Yesterday, they got their day in the sun. Representatives the group Citizens Write Plan C went in front of the legislature to pitch their plan and asked for more 144-car ferries.

Bremerton ferry riders are currently served by two ferries that carry both cars and passengers. But here's the rub: Running two auto ferries to Bremerton is a waste of time, taxpayer money, and steel. Clinging to its auto ferries isn't going to get what Bremerton really needs: fast, reliable, passenger-only service, and one passenger/auto ferry.

Let me explain.

After reconsidering the much-hated Plan B, WSF made an about-face and revised the plan to keep the Bremerton run at two boats retain evening service. But the reason wasn't because residents balked, and representatives pleaded. WSF made the change because, it explained, "The importance of evening and night service for major military employers such as Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and swing/night shift workers in Seattle led to the restoration of service in those time periods."

This is ironic, because it is the second time in as many years that WSF has played the shipyard card in justifying its service, but each time to an entirely different end. The first being when Bremerton riders asked for an adjusted schedule to fill the gap between the 10:30 p.m. and 12:50 a.m. sailings from Seattle to better accommodate witnessing the end of operas, plays, and Mariner's games. But, WSF chief David Moseley said they could not, because of the Seattle residents reliant on the 10:30 p.m. sailing to make the swing shift at Bremerton's PSNS. The number of swing shifters? According to WSF, it's about 40 to 75. When asked how 75 riders could so drastically dictate the lives of ferry-dependent residents in Kitsap County, WSF told Seattle Weekly to look a little closer at the Navy end of the remark. It's not just the 75 shipyard kids who are calling the shots, it's Rear Admiral James A. Symonds, Commander of Navy Region Northwest, who wrote a letter to David Moseley saying:

"I strongly recommend the State of Washington pursue a course of action that will maintain the service our Navy Sailors, civilian employees and families now depend on and enjoy."

He continued, "If a reduction of current services is unavoidable, I would encourage you to pursue restoration of passenger-only ferry service to fill any gaps in the schedule created by reduction. Many Sailors and civilians in the Navy workforce walk on the ferry, particularly to and from Bremerton. Therefore, passenger only service could be a satisfactory alternative." (Our boldface for emphasis.)

And that's the key issue. The Navy, the 75 riders commuting to the shipyard, and the thousands of Bremerton residents pleading for better evening service all have one thing in common: They want more frequent service to Seattle, not necessarily aboard boats that also carry cars.

After the four Steel Electric ferries were abruptly yanked from service in 2007 and WSF was left without backup boats, ferry riders have endured a waterborne commuter hell. None have felt it more acutely than those from Vashon and Bremerton. Legislators made it abundantly clear during the off season that this session would be crucial for the ferry system. But so much effort has been put into reacting against Plan B, and preserving the status quo, something crucial has been forgotten: We didn't like the status quo in the first place. And if this is our time to make change, let's ask for something we riders want, not something we don't.

Anyone who rides the boats off-peak knows that these 2,000-passenger boats run very light much of the time. The 12:50 a.m. from Seattle attracts fewer people than your average Access bus. And the 10:30 p.m. run -- unless there's a Mariner's game or other mass attraction -- isn't much fuller. In fact, according to sample data of several weeks of runs provided to SW by WSF, of the 14 runs a day from Seattle to Bremerton, six of them average fewer than 100 passengers per run; and only four of them averaged more than 300. As a transit system, it is extremely inefficient. Wouldn't it make more sense to move light runs on smaller, FASTER ferries that don't carry cars?

WSF and the state legislature still don't see it that way. They've made it abundantly clear that the state is out of the passenger-only business. They've said it's not sustainable. But, considering WSF's $1.3 to $3.2 billion projected deficit over the next two decades, the auto ferry business isn't looking much better. But, even if it's not WSF running the passenger-only ferries, someone should. In fact, Kitsap Transit, with help from earmarks from Sen. Patty Murray, is studying the feasibility a 120-passenger foot ferry between Bremerton and Seattle that would make the trip in only 32 minutes, roughly half the 60 minute ride we enjoy today.

Sure, there's no way a 120-passenger boat can compensate for the 2,000-passenger equivalent of a maritime Hummer. So, get several of them. Four passenger-only boats making the run in half the time as a 2,000-passenger auto ferry sounds great to me. But, Fred Chang, a long-time Bremerton ferry rider and Port Orchard City Councilman echoes the sentiments of many of his comrades.

"My main concern though is if we do get the passenger-only ferries, I don't know if anyone knows who would pay for it."

Bremerton City Councilman Adam Brockus contends that passenger-only service should supplement the auto ferries. But, I think it should be the other way around. Cars can drive around the Sound via the Tacoma Narrows Bridge if need be. Pedestrians can't.

People don't drive onto the Bremerton ferry because they HAVE TO. They do it because they can. Everyone I know who takes their car on the ferry doesn't have to. And even those with the farthest final destinations -- Ballard, West Seattle, the U-District -- could very easily catch a bus from downtown. The current problem is the lack of coordination with Metro. But, if there was a ferry arriving downtown every 15 minutes during the morning rush hour, coordination becomes a lot easier.

The tiny fraction of auto commuters who can't make it to their job via public transportation is holding back the rest of the region. There aren't very many of them, and they should drive around the Sound. It hardly takes more time--at least 80 minutes when you count loading, unloading, and waiting--or money--a gulp from your gas tank and the $4 bridge toll versus $20 round trip on the ferry). And if you dangle a 32-minute passenger-only commute in front of a drive-on commuter's face, I think you'll start changing some habits. Let's stop rewarding bad behavior (drive-ons) and start rewarding the rest (people who walk on).

I'm a daily patron of the Bremerton ferry and have been a resident of ferry-dependent communities for most of my life. I know that the thought of moving to a single auto ferry feels like a stick in the eye, one that underscores the lack of parity between Bremerton's and Bainbridge Island's ferry service. But, we're a different community than the others that live and die by the ferry schedule. Bremerton, meaning Kitsap, isn't an island. We have different needs. So if we're going to ask the legislature for something, let's ask for something we want. And if we're going to dream, let's dream big.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited from its original version to note that WSF's revised Plan B proposal moves the Bremerton run to a single auto ferry, not two auto ferries as was originally reported. Citizens for Plan C want two auto ferries. Yes, I'm saying I agree with Plan B. Basically.

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