Bay Area to Puget Sound: Thanks for the Ferries

While Bremerton commuters saw half their service get cut last week, San Francisco enjoyed smooth sailing on the backup boats that Washington State Ferries sold.

David Morse still loves Bremerton. But he's sick of the ferry service. Which is why, 10 years after relocating to that Navy-dominated town on the Kitsap Peninsula, an hour's ferry ride from downtown Seattle, in search of cheap housing, Morse is seriously considering moving back to Seattle."It's so unpredictable. It's so arbitrary," he says of the ferry service. "Monday was kind of the last straw. I just kind of thought, 'I'm done taking the ferry.'"He's referring to Monday, August 30, when one of the boats serving affluent Bainbridge Island had a "hard landing" at the dock and went into the shop. Because Washington State Ferries has no backup boats, every time a boat goes out of service unexpectedly, there are service disruptions. More often than not, the Seattle-Bremerton run is the one that gets cut.That's what happened that Monday. In the shuffle to maintain two-boat service to Bainbridge, WSF took a boat from Bremerton, halving service for residents like Morse.Riders have grown accustomed to this in the past two years, after WSF abruptly retired four of its aging car/passenger ferries and sold them for scrap.Now, with no backup boats to draw on, WSF has to rent replacements when one of its fleet goes out of service. WSF spent around $200,000, the agency says, to rent two passenger-only ferries from Victoria Express, the company that takes tourists from the Seattle waterfront to Victoria, B.C. WSF put those two boats on the Bremerton run, providing, at least, extra passenger-only service.This has happened before: From November 2007 through November 2008, WSF spent more than $400,000 leasing passenger-only boats when one of its regular ships was down.The irony is that not too long ago, WSF had its own passenger-only ferries that regularly ran between Bremerton and Seattle. But after Bainbridge landowners claimed the boats' wake eroded their beaches, and WSF lost funding with the state excise tax, the route was canceled and the boats were taken out of regular service.The legislature eventually mandated that WSF get out of the passenger-only ferry business, and the boats were finally sold in January to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, which runs between San Francisco and Marin County, for $4.4 million. (More than half the proceeds went to fund the passenger-only King County Water Taxi, which connects downtown and West Seattle.)WSF knew that cashing in its only "extra" boats would cause service disruptions and necessitate renting vessels from outside companies to patch up its routes. So did Governor Gregoire. But neither chose to fight the legislative mandate to sell the boats.So what are those sold boats up to now, while WSF blows more money leasing backup boats and Bremerton riders like David Morse get the shaft?The Snohomish has been running between San Francisco and Larkspur, a major commuter harbor in Marin County, every weekday since May 28, filling in for a boat that's being repaired. The Chinook is going to be overhauled, then used for special events, like extra runs for Giants games.Mary Currie, a spokesperson for Golden Gate, says she expects the Snohomish—since renamed the MV Napa—to keep its current weekday gig until March. The purchase was a natural for Golden Gate, which doesn't have the burden of moving cars, as the WSF does. "Our ferry system was created as an alternative to driving specifically," Currie says.After closing the deal, Golden Gate spent $450,000 on "minor refurbishments" for the Snohomish, brought its capacity up to 400, and put it to work.And the customers? How do they like it? "I get to see all the customer complaints that come in," Currie says, "and there has not been one."Morse says he actually saw the Napa recently during a trip to San Francisco. He speaks for more than a few Bremerton regulars when he says he wishes WSF had held onto it for emergencies. "You drool when you see it."At $4.4 million for a pair of vessels, Currie acknowledges that Golden Gate got a heck of a deal. Throw in the $8.6 million in federal stimulus funds and $9.9 million in Federal Transit Administration funds the district received to refurbish the boats, and it sounds more like a gift from above.

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