Back To The Future: What’s The Holdup On A Lake Washington Passenger Ferry?

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Transportation is all about right-of-way, particularly that slender strip of real estate connecting where you are with where you want to be. Right-of-way is costly in dense and congested communities, so adding to the stock of right-of-way is difficult, often requiring condemnation, redevelopment, and pain.  All the while, congestion builds and mobility atrophies.  

Certainly, this appears to be the story of central Puget Sound in the 21st century.  Our unique geography has combined with development decisions reaching back before the Great Seattle Fire and to King County’s haphazard urbanization of rural King County after the Second World War. The result has been low density sprawl that recognized infrastructural needs after development rather than before or coincidentally. All this has seriously constrained our options, particularly for finding right-of-way.  

The region is home to disruptive new technologies so it should be able to find a disruptive right-of-way technology.  And we can if we go back to the future and remember the historic mosquito fleets of our past.  

Rebuilding the mosquito fleet began nearly 20 years ago when the state ferry system launched passenger-only ferries linking West Seattle, Vashon, and Kitsap with downtown Seattle.  The start was leaky. Boats unsuited to their task drove up operating costs and damaged beaches. Eventually, the legislature pulled the plug but King County picked up the Vashon and West Seattle routes.  

Over the next decade, the boats were replaced, ultimately with modern purpose-built water taxis, and ridership steadily grew.  Today, the King County Water Taxis have exceeded forecast ridership and operate with economics equivalent to the Metro and Sound Transit bus fleets.  Over 700,000 trips took place between West Seattle or Vashon and the Colman Dock in downtown Seattle last year with 99% reliability and 98% on-time performance. Such performance King County Metro’s Marine Division is justly proud of. 

King County’s success encouraged Kitsap County residents to vote to launch a similar water taxi in 2016.  And there is more to come. King County funded studies of routes from Ballard and Kenmore, and a Lake Union Ferry Co. plans a micro-taxi service, similar to Vancouver’s False Creek water taxis, circumnavigating Lake Union and connecting the tech and health science businesses around the lake.  

But the most immediately interesting proposal would start service in 2023 from Renton’s Hyatt Regency hotel to MOHAI at the tip of South Lake Union. Michael Christ, owner and CEO of SECO Development, is the driver of this vision, which started with SECO Development’s Southport, a mixed-use development on the south tip of Lake Washington. Southport started with the Hyatt Regency Hotel and has grown to 750,000 square feet of class A waterfront offices, retail, and apartments. From the deck of the Hyatt, one can look north at some of the most uncongested right-of-way on the Eastside.  

Christ’s other vision is a water taxi route from Southport to South Lake Union. That would be a one-hour trip on a fast ferry running hourly, competitive with the already congested routes to South Lake Union but with spectacular views, time and space to work, or just for yourself. 

Christ brought that proposal to King County early in 2017, advocating a partnership between SECO and the county.  SECO would provide three 150-passenger fast ferries, outfitted for the 21st century and including WiFi connectivity, and then subsidize the operation of the ferries to prove the route’s performance.  

King County Executive Dow Constantine grasped the public benefit of SECO’s proposal, encouraging the participation of King Councy Metro’s Maraine Division. Planning for the route continued through 2017 and 2018.  SECO and King County jointly funded studies of the route, which demonstrated its feasibility, and SECO undertook planning for the procurement of three ferries, developing necessary funding and secured firm positions for constructing the boats on a schedule to begin operations in 2020.

Except.  While SECO invested earnest money to secure a delivery commitment for the boats, full-funding awaited a dock. Southport can support ferry operations from its dock, but the question remained where the Lake Washington Water Taxi would touch down in South Lake Union.   After studying a number of sites, SECO and its consultants concluded the South Lake Union Park dock at MOHAI worked best.  

Discussions with the City of Seattle about the feasibility (and benefits) of the MOHAI dock began in 2018.  And continued in 2019. And continue today.  

What’s the problem?  It’s not clear. Objections raised include a small amount of state recreational funding prohibiting commercial operations. That does not seem fatal, as the same condition exists at West Seattle, comes up each renewal of the contract between Seattle Parks and the West Seattle Ferry, and resolves itself quickly.  Dislike of increasing foot traffic through the park or by MOHAI? No interest in connecting with Renton? Barriers to navigating in commercial waterways? It’s a mystery. 

Comprehending why a region challenged by congestion would choose to turn down a $15 million private investment in three passenger-only ferries as well as an ongoing subsidy to prove the routes boggles the mind.  Nearly every major city in the world developed around a body of water uses passenger ferries as one of their transportation modes. Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, Geneva, Stockholm — the list goes on. These small ferries add to mobility options and use right-of-way that’s free. Also, as San Francisco learned after an earthquake, useable after a disaster when constructed right-of-ways may be out of service.  

It’s time to get moving.  Or, more accurately, sailing.  Restoring Lake Washington’s ferries time has come.  

2 COMMENTS

  1. I’m not quite sure that the benefits outweigh the risks; there is quite a bit of commercial activity on Lake Union already; adding congestion would not be beneficial. Perhaps at stop at the UW Medical Center would be a better solution?

    • The UW connection is a good insight. One of the options we’ve looked at would link with the Lake Union Ferry Co. At the UW and use North Link & their ferries to link to a final destination. SECO’s ferries are fast, Lake Washington Ferries, like False Creek, are slow and navigating Lake Union works against the strength of a fast ferry.

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