$2 million annual subsidy is one challenge of Tacoma-to-Seattle fast ferry

Could fast ferry service work in Tacoma?

Kitsap Transit's fast ferry from Bremerton to Seattle inspired a feasibility study for a similar service in Tacoma.
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Kitsap Transit's fast ferry from Bremerton to Seattle inspired a feasibility study for a similar service in Tacoma.

The biggest challenge to starting fast-ferry service between Tacoma and Seattle is how to pay for the projected $2 million annual subsidy that would keep fares at a reasonable price, Tacoma city council member Ryan Mello said Wednesday.

“How do you finance that? What funding source is that? That’s a big question,” Mello said in an interview. He added he does not support taking any existing funding from Pierce Transit.

Mello made his remarks after briefing the State Transportation Commission on a study released late last year that said fast-ferry service is feasible. The study — prepared by consultants working for the city of Tacoma, Pierce Transit, and the Port of Tacoma — examined proposals for trips from Tacoma to Seattle in under an hour with a one-way fare of about $11.

The cost of a ferry terminal in Tacoma would range from $500,000 to about $3 million, the study found. The vessels would cost from $10 million to $17 million each, depending on whether they would carry 150 or 250 passengers. Three would be needed — two in service and a back-up, the report said.

The study found the estimated operating costs would be $3 million per year, with passenger fares covering $1 million to $1.5 million.

The commission’s executive director, Reema Griffith, asked Mello if the city of Tacoma was considering a regional or local tax levied through a ferry district to help pay for operating costs.

“It’s potentially possible,” he replied. “It’s been identified as one of the local funding mixes.”

Griffith asked if Tacoma has considered working with several counties on crafting a regional system.

“How do you leverage all that interest? Does that become a bigger taxing district?” she asked.

Mello advocated a regional approach to paying costs of a fast-ferry system, saying it seemed “idiotic” to have more than a dozen ferry districts working separately.

He urged the transportation commission to support the next step, which is a $350,000 study by the Puget Sound Regional Council on fast-ferry service — also referred to as passenger-only service — in the 12 counties around Puget Sound.

The study is in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed transportation budget for 2019-2021. It would examine fast-ferry demand, analyze potential routes and identify future terminal locations on Puget Sound, Lake Washington and Lake Union. A report to the Legislature would be due by Jan. 31, 2021.

Jerry Litt, chairman of the State Transportation Commission, said the panel would discuss whether to send a letter to the Legislature in support of the governor’s proposal. He also said commission members might express their support through emails.

King County provides fast-ferry service between Vashon Island and downtown Seattle, and West Seattle and downtown Seattle.

Kitsap Transit offers service on four routes: Port

A trip from Bremerton to Seattle on Kitsap Transit’s new fast ferry typically takes about 28 minutes compared to about an hour on a Washington State ferry, background. The fast ferry features a hydrofoil design that reduces drag. Photo taken on on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

Orchard-Bremerton, Port Orchard-Annapolis, Bremerton-Seattle and Kingston-Seattle. Plans call for adding a Southworth-Seattle route.

Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, filed a bill this session that would direct the state Department of Transportation to study a fast-ferry between Olympia and Seattle. His bill is pending in the Senate Transportation Committee.