What it would take to get a fast ferry from Tacoma to Seattle

Joe Mienko has a lot of time to think about commuting from his home in Tacoma to Seattle, during, (what else?) his commute.

As a senior research scientist in social work for the University of Washington, he estimates that on most days he can spend about 90 minutes one way on Interstate 5, along with the rest of Pierce County’s sizable commuter traffic.

Any way to speed that up?

“If I leave at 4 a.m., I can be at the office in 40 minutes,” he added ruefully, noting that his current commute is worse than when only one bridge spanned the Tacoma Narrows and he had to drive from Gig Harbor to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

So, all of that drive time made Mienko wonder, “Why can’t we have a passenger-only fast ferry in Tacoma?”


To see the effects of having a fast ferry, Tacomans can look to Bremerton.

That city’s fast ferry went into service July 10. According to Kitsap Transit, it can make the trip to Seattle in less than 30 minutes, compared with an hour on a regular state ferry.

“We ... launched a reservations system in late June to handle the enormous demand for the service, and the volume of reservations was so high initially that our mail-server was overloaded,” according to Sanjay Bhatt, media representative for Kitsap Transit.

The ferry service counts each passenger’s trip, so if, for example, a passenger’s round trip counts as two passenger trips. From July 10-31, the fast ferry provided 19,492 passenger trips, according to Kitsap Transit.

Those numbers might be higher now than in the future, as rides were free in July.

The price for customers is a more than for the state ferries: $2 from Bremerton to Seattle, then $10 for the trip back ($168 for a monthly pass), compared with a roundtrip ticket of $8.20 for the state ferry’s Bremerton-Seattle route ($105.80 for a monthly pass).

And, the cost of maintaining such a service is a factor, too.

According to The Seattle Times, the service and its $48 million start-up cost is paid for through a 0.3 percent sales tax in Kitsap County, bringing in just over $13 million in 2017.

Subsidies start at $21 per passenger this year and fluctuate between $17 and $38 per passenger over the next two decades, The Times reported in July.

In addition, The Times reported Kitsap Transit estimates that over the long term, fares will cover about 28 percent of the costs of operating the ferries.

For now, the popularity of the rapid transit service could be one aspect of Kitsap County’s rising real estate prices.

For July, “Pending sales were up in a big way in Kitsap County; 19.68 percent, compared to last July. Could that new foot ferry be responsible?” asked a recent John L. Scott real estate news release touting the latest round of Northwest Multiple Listing Service figures for the month.


So, what about Tacoma?

After Bremerton’s fast ferry launched, Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello proposed that the city and Pierce Transit team up for a feasibility study to determine whether such a ferry service would be used and what it would take to get it done.

Mello floated the idea on his Facebook page, where it drummed up a lot of excitement, he said.

He said he called a meeting with City Manager Elizabeth Pauli and leaders from Pierce Transit this summer to discuss a fast ferry as a way for Tacomans to have an alternative to the gridlock on Interstate 5.

“It’s more than just getting people out of traffic, it could also be an economic development lever for people in Seattle or north coming to downtown Tacoma to spend the day,” Mello said.

“It’s so much more lovely to travel by water and make that excursion and then get off the foot ferry, cross a bridge, go to some wonderful parks, see some awesome museums … so it’s an economic development play in addition to just using our waterways to move people.”

If studying the fast ferry route were approved by the city and Pierce Transit, Mello said, the City Council could make a budget adjustment in 2018 for the feasibility study.

He said he envisions a ferry that would depart out of the old municipal dock.

Pierce Transit said in a statement that, at Mello’s request, the agency met with the city to discuss whether a fast ferry route “is even worth studying as an option.”

The agency would need approval from its board to move forward.

“At this time, there has been no discussion of that nature,” the Pierce Transit statement said. “We are always open to listening to innovative options that reduce traffic congestion and provide commuters relief from gridlock.”

But Mello isn’t the only local politician who’s been excited at the prospect of passenger ferry service from Tacoma.

Don Meyer, a Port of Tacoma commissioner and former executive director of the Foss Waterway Development Authority, said it’s something he’s been thinking about for well over a decade (evidenced by stories from The News Tribune from the early 2000s in which he’s quoted talking about a possible ferry route).

The time is now, Meyer said.

“I believe people are going to be looking at alternatives, I believe the water is a logical alternative and I believe fundamentally as you see the density of residential units in and around the downtown core, it only leads me to believe hey, there’s an opportunity here that didn’t exist 10 to 20 years ago,” Meyer said.

“The demand, the desire for alternate routes … they’re sick and tired of the parking lot on I-5.”

And, Meyer said, there’s already a method in place for making ferry service happen at the old municipal dock, the same place the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet used to stop when it ferried people and goods between Seattle and other settlements on the Puget Sound in the early part of the 20th century.

“In the master plan development, there is a provision for the old municipal dock place,” he said. “The provision in that long-term lease is that the Foss Waterway Development Authority has the ability to buy out that section on an amortized basis for the establishment of a passenger ferry service.

“In other words, there’s a home there.”

Norm Gollub, executive director of the Foss Waterway Development Authority, said the lease provision allows the agency to acquire three docks in front of the municipal dock site if passenger ferry service comes to Tacoma.

“We recently had the folks that did the fast passenger ferry service in Bremerton come and speak to our board about it,” he said. “I think what you’re seeing is the result of our board would like to see this type of service take place.

“We, as a small agency, don’t have the capacity to lead the charge, but we are hoping that Pierce County and the city will take on that role.”

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud