King County Water Taxi waiting area. (Photo by author)
King County Water Taxi waiting area. (Photo by author)

Could the Mosquito Fleet return to Lake Washington and spread to new locations on the eastern side of Puget Sound? King County Metro is asking that question as it evaluates new King County Water Taxi routes between Ballard and Downtown Seattle and Kenmore to Seattle. The evaluation process comes just four years after a similar review was undertaken.

Passenger-only ferries in the region tend to be highly regarded by riders due to their spaciousness and uniquely scenic means of traveling between destinations. Studies of new service have been routinely conjured up by state and local officials. Contemporary examples of this include Kitsap Transit’s new cross-Puget Sound service next year, the Puget Sound Regional Council taking a wider regional lens of a passenger-only ferry network, and a potential Renton-Seattle ferry by a private operator on the horizon. Metro operates two King County Water Taxi routes from Downtown Seattle (Pier 50): one to Vashon Island and another to West Seattle.

In 2015, King County took a deep dive into similar ideas that Metro is currently exploring. The evaluation process culminated in a report indicating that mature passenger-only service on Lake Washington and Puget Sound could be attained by 2025. Service was modeled with three peak-hour roundtrips in the morning and another three peak-hour roundtrips in the afternoon to capture commuters. Ridership would be about 119,000 per year (or 467 per day) between Kenmore and University of Washington and 116,000 per year (or 455 per day) between Ballard and Downtown Seattle. Additionally, fares would need to reach $7.50 by 2025 to maintain a 25% farebox recovery target.

Metro is now evaluating the same key pairings as 2015 in addition to several other options on Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Six pairings have made the first cut, which include:

  • Shilshole Bay Marina to the Seattle Downtown Waterfront (about 25 minutes per trip);
  • Shilshole Bay Marina to Smith Cove (about 20 minutes per trip);
  • Kenmore to University of Washington (about 30 minutes per trip);
  • Kenmore to Portage Bay (about 40 minutes per trip);
  • Kenmore to Madison Park (about 25 minutes per trip); and
  • Kenmore to Leschi (about 30 minutes per trip).

While Shilshole Bay Marina is in Ballard, it is separated from the denser parts of the neighborhood by a railway and bluff. Central Ballard is about 1.5 miles away and currently has no bus service to the marina, which undoubtedly would need to be extended to make the ferry viable. Routing a ferry closer to Central Ballard is essentially a nonstarter since it would require running service through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and be even less competitive and prone to delays.

Metro would presumably be using their passenger catamaran-type vessels to serve the ferry terminals. These vessels are fairly quick, particularly when covering longer distances where they can reach their cruising speeds of 35 knots (40 mph). However, a quicker option could be hydrofoil technology that would further reduce the estimated times. The drawbacks of that, however, are higher per unit costs, possible environmental impacts, and ongoing maintenance and reliability associated with the technology.

The initial estimated trip times of the conceptional routings differ somewhat from the 2015 report, but either way are underwhelming when compared to existing bus service. A bus trip from Central Ballard to Smith Cove currently takes about 12 minutes at peak; a longer bus trip to Downtown Seattle has a scheduled run time of about 27 minutes–granted real life conditions doesn’t always cooperate. Meanwhile, Kenmore to the University District and Downtown Seattle by bus is about 40 minutes at peak. It is hard to imagine the ferry alternatives outperforming most comparable bus and light rail options–at least short of a traffic meltdown.

To illustrate the time performance challenge, consider what it would take to reach Downtown Seattle from Kenmore via ferry. A rider would spend the 30 minutes on the ferry plus five minutes walking to the light rail station and then face a six-minute average time penalty for the transfer. Travel time on light rail would take another six minutes, resulting in a total travel averaging above 40 minutes. Not accounted in this, of course, is getting to the ferry terminal in Kenmore (likely at Log Boom Park), which may be less convenient than current alternatives for most potential riders.

Metro is taking online feedback through a survey to gauge interest in the route options as well as understand what riders view as priorities for onboard ferry service. Planners are also trying to determine where riders want to ride, when and how often they use certain corridors, and how they would want to connect to ferry service.

Article Author
 | Website

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.