Water Taxi Town Hall: Ridership revelation; big questions/answers

Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

Just under 30 people turned out tonight for the King County Water Taxi Town Hall at Alki Community Center, hosted by County Councilmember Jan Drago, who also chairs the King County Ferry District board.

Joining Drago were Hank Myers, who became KCFD Executive Director in March, and Scott Davis, director of the Marine Division of the King County Department of Transportation. The trio answered questions from attendees, provided updates on the state of the service and its two routes, and gathered information via a survey handout and a “Where Do You Live?” posterboard. Also in attendance was Chris Arkills, transportation adviser to County Executive Dow Constantine, a longtime Water Taxi champion.

The West Seattle-to-downtown run of the 2010 Water Taxi season has been underway for just over two months since its April 5 kickoff. Although the county leaders touted the overall success of the program (which features an upgraded West Seattle dock, relocated downtown dock, new vessel, and new fare structure), Davis reported that overall West Seattle-to-downtown ridership is down about 40% from the same period in 2009 (which was way up from 2008). Vashon-to-downtown ridership, he added, is strong.

(From left, KCFD executive director Myers, KCDOT Marine Division director Davis, Councilmember Drago)
Several attendees offered their theories regarding the decreased ridership (for example, people didn’t know that the ferry’s downtown dock moved, poor 2010 spring weather, increased fares). Davis acknowledged all of those impacts but indicated that he’s still working through the data.

Drago emphasized that she considers a huge part of her job to be finding enough money to “fill the gap” to continue the ferry service year-round, rather than the current “April-to-October” timeframe. Several attendees noted that this was important, because the disruption in service makes many potential riders “forget about the taxi.”

Myers stated that although his data shows that “commuter ridership” for the ferry is strong, a huge focus for the service is still tourism, in particular “local travelers” and families who increasingly choose local day-trips for their leisure time.

Although a couple of attendees openly questioned the necessity of a water-taxi program in the currently challenging economic climate, the majority of the audience identified themselves as “big fans” who “love the water taxi” and want to make it better.

Highlights of the Q&A and “what’s new” session (added 1:53 am):

THE NEW DOWNTOWN DOCK: While some attendees simply expressed concern that the Water Taxi’s new dock on the Seattle side (Pier 50, further south that the previous Pier 54/55) might be hard to find, others lamented that it was “too far from the Pike Place Market and downtown” and that the dock itself was “poorly lit” and even “creepy.” Myers noted that the new location is closer to major attractions like Safeco Field and Qwest Field, but acknowledged the added Pike Market distance. Drago announced that new “West Seattle Water Taxi” signage for the Seattle side is coming soon (in fabrication now, installation hopefully by the end of June) with a blue color scheme designed to complement the City of Seattle’s existing “signposts” for local attractions. With regard to the dock itself, Davis reported that there is “probably no chance” of the dock moving back to its previous location at Argosy’s pier for several reasons, but that his office is working on improvements, including the hiring of “marine information agents” to be onsite at Pier 50 to assist travelers.

(WSB photo from April)
WEST SEATTLE DOCK, PARKING, SHUTTLES: Several attendees spoke favorably about the new infrastructure on the West Seattle side. One commenter asked if there were plans to provide parking near the West Seattle dock – Myers responded that it’s a “City of Seattle issue” and Drago expressed doubt because park-and-rides are not favored by the City of Seattle. Another attendee said, “The new dock is nice, but needs a cover so we don’t get soaked.” Other commenters suggested that the shuttles serving the dock be more distinctly marked (“give them names,” and “have fun with them!”), should run their loop in the alternate direction rather than just one (so people who live in the other direction don’t have to “ride all the way around”), and should be wary of other beach traffic and “not block other cars.” Myers asked if riders would support “advertising wraps” on shuttles (like Metro buses), and most attendees said “no” – it was also noted that the boats themselves do not currently have onboard advertising (though they did in previous years), but that could be changing.

(WSB photo from April)
NEW BOAT: A few attendees mentioned that although they like the West Seattle route’s new boat, the Rachel Marie, the vessel seems much louder. Davis responded that his office has heard these complaints, and in recent weeks have been experimenting with lower speeds during non-peak times (which tourist traffic is higher) to reduce noise. There is obvious hesitation to reduce speeds for all peak-commute routes (where timeliness is most crucial), but his office will continue to examine it. Another attendee felt that the boat lacked “outdoor deck space,” while other attendees pointed out that the boat does have a deck although it is “smaller, and in the back.” One attendee asked who owned the boats, and Davis clarified that they are owned by Four Seasons Marine, leased by the county.

FARE CHANGES: One commenter suggested that the ferry district “reinstate the transfer” that in previous years had encouraged “quick shoppers” by offering a significant fare discount if they took their return trip within 2 hours of their arrival. The presenters discussed this and agreed that the idea is a good one, and noted that ORCA card holders do currently get a similar discount. Another attendee noted that the “senior citizens gold card” discount went away this year (no longer free), and another asked about reduced fares for youth groups — Davis said he would look into the former, and could be contacted regarding “group fare discounts” for the latter. Several attendees mentioned the overall fare increases from 2009 to 2010, encouraging the district to always strongly consider the potential impact on ridership before raising prices.

ANTI-THEFT MEASURES: One attendee asked if the ferry district was “going to get its
$7500 back,” in reference to the recent arrest of an ex-employee charged with stealing fare boxes. Davis acknowledged that the theft had “hit us hard” and recapped that the employee was fired, arrested and jailed. New measures implemented since the theft include: Restricting how many employees have combinations to the safe, regular fare inventories, requiring two “signatures” to get into the safes, and management audits with Loomis (armored car service) currently twice a week. Additional measures are also under consideration.

THREE TIMES THE COST? One attendee asked the presenters to comment on the recent TV report that claimed the county is paying more to run the Water Taxi than it would cost to pay Argosy to run it. Myers called the comparison inaccurate, noting that the figures cited for Argosy do not include full operating costs, while the ferry district’s numbers do. He emphasized that the ferry district’s model is “saving a lot of money” versus the previous model in which the state of Washington ran the Seattle-Vashon service. Another attendee also questioned the district’s figures, but all three presenters reiterated and explained their accuracy.

FINDING THE MONEY TO KEEP IT GOING YEAR-ROUND: Drago said “the ferry district is not universally popular on King County Council,” and made reference to the 2009-to-2010 reduction in funding – the ferry district was previously authorized to charge 5.5 cents per $1000 of assessed property value in King County. But in the face of some opposition, that amount was dramatically reduced, which has deeply impacted ferry funding. Drago’s hope is that “if we can add just another third of a cent back,” the district could move closer to its goal of providing year-round service. Drago also assured attendees that she fully understands that many riders view the service as essential because of growing transportation concerns (South Park bridge closure, SoDo construction, viaduct rebuild) which are “only going to get worse.”

LATE-NIGHT ROUTES: In response to a question about evening routes, Davis reiterated that the Water Taxi will operate on an extended late-night schedule on weekday evenings when there are Mariners, Sounders, or Seahawks games. One commenter mentioned that he had an issue traveling home on Memorial Day (Monday) after a downtown sporting event, and Davis acknowledged the error and assured that it had been addressed.

NOT JUST FOR TOURISTS AND COMMUTERS: A couple who identified themselves as “retired, but big fans of the water taxi” urged the presenters not to assume that all taxi riders fall into the two buckets of “commuter” and “tourist.” For downtown visits involving things like “jury duty and shopping” at non-peak hours, the taxi still provides a valuable service, they said – and the presenters agreed.

14 Replies to "Water Taxi Town Hall: Ridership revelation; big questions/answers"

  • celeste17 June 9, 2010 (11:50 pm)

    I wanted to be there tonight but got stuck waiting for the UPS delivery man (who never showed up). Thank You for covering this meeting. I will sent Jan Drago a message in support of the Water Taxi. This is going to become really popular once the work beings on the viaduct.

  • Gina June 10, 2010 (7:43 am)

    I see many former water taxi riders on the 56E with me. The City of Seattle switched to Orca cards for employees, and it costs extra to use the water taxi. The hassle of having enough extra exact change to make up the fare, and the bus passes not accepted, and more 56E busses, the 15-20 minute wait for the shuttles to leave after the water taxi has unloaded, loaded and left are all small things that add up in my decision not to use the water taxi for commuting.

  • Jerry June 10, 2010 (7:55 am)

    Perhaps one reason for ridership being down 40% than last year is that the weather has been at least 40% worse than last year so far. I’d be willing to bet that those numbers will steadily increase as the summer rolls along.

  • JCM June 10, 2010 (8:08 am)

    We need the water taxi to continue later NOT JUST FOR SPORTING EVENTS! I can’t take it as a regular commuter, because I work until 8 or 9 at night.

  • D June 10, 2010 (9:02 am)

    I was one who complained early on about moving the downtown dock to pier 55, but after I used the taxi for jury duty last month (not the one in the article, however), I am happy to have it in Pioneer Square. I love the idea of exploring the shops, galleries and restaurants in that neighborhood. And I was especially thrilled not to have the shrill Argosy announcements blasting in my ear when I stepped off the boat.

  • M.D. June 10, 2010 (10:04 am)

    I just started taking the water taxi to work about 3 weeks ago (love it!) and purchased an Orca card. I loaded my card with $50.00 on June 1 and check my balance on June 8 only to find out that it was still pending! I thought that once you tapped it, it was activated in 24hrs or instantly? I called Orca customer service and I was told that “the water taxi is not equipped to activate money you add onto the card. I suggest you go find a bus in the ride free zone, tap your card and it will be activated.” Seriously? Has anyone been told to do that? What a pain in the behind. Nowhere on the website could I find where it said I couldn’t activate my card by having the handheld reader at the taxi tap it. I ended up finding a bus (not in the free zone) and I was charged $2.75 for a bus ride I didn’t take!! What gives! If the only time I can activate money I put on my card is by finding a bus and losing money………not a fan of that. Is King County going to do something about that??? I wish I could have attended the meeting and given my two cents. I do love the taxi however.

  • BadwolfZanda June 10, 2010 (10:51 am)

    I often found the chaos at Argosy extremely stressful. I much prefer the new location.

  • clark5080 June 10, 2010 (11:21 am)

    A little interesting reading about the water taxi


  • Mario June 10, 2010 (1:15 pm)

    Clark5080, I read that article too. Based on the 2009 numbers, the cost is approx $15 per person. Now, for 2010 the usage had dropped 40%. It was a marginal operation when Argosy ran the line. As much as I like the watertaxi and I’ve used it a number of times, you can’t justify the cost especially since “a huge focus for the service is still tourism”. It seems like metro could buy another bus and drivers for a West Seattle to Downtown Express run…and probably have enough left over to pay for another policeman or a teacher. If the majority of the ridership is tourism, let a private company run the line if they can.

  • westside June 10, 2010 (2:12 pm)

    Ennis’ article is misleading and uses bad data. There was an article in the Times that debunked his report and said they never even talked to the Ferry District. It seems they are more interested in politics than the truth.

  • Jerry June 10, 2010 (2:53 pm)

    I agree about the chaos and confusion at the old location. The clear cut lines are much more pleasant to deal with. Now if they’d make the people who don’t have cash get out of line while they fish around in their pockets it would be even better.

  • BadwolfZanda June 10, 2010 (8:14 pm)

    Regarding the importance of tourism: the best transit systems in the world have rarely been
    built simply to appeal to tourists. They were built to serve the needs of people who live and do business in the place. Tourists get to enjoy a better infrastructure as a result. The Water Taxi has always been about getting tourist $$$ over to West Seattle, rather than providing transit for those who live here.

  • Bugga June 11, 2010 (3:50 pm)

    There were a few times I thought about using it again with visitors and games, but this year they raised the price and they dropped the return trip discount which makes is less attractive monetarily to go to sporting events/downtown to those of us who use it occasionally. I think they “missed the boat” on that one and just assumed everyone would pay a higher price for a newer ferry. I think a lot of people would have found it more economical if they would have left the pricing. Poor decision.

  • sarelly June 11, 2010 (5:23 pm)

    Thanks for the information. I wanted to take the water taxi a couple of times but couldn’t find the new location. Then when I found it, I felt like the new location was a creepier, more isolated place to walk to and wait, and also it was not marked, which made me anxious about missing the ferry. Signage with schedules and basic boarding instructions would be helpful. At the Argosy dock, they would tell passenger when they could board. The trip itself seemed to go much more quickly than before, and the new boat, while comparatively plush, felt stuffy – I wanted to be on top, up in the air, where I could enjoy the scenery, which was a special way to relax on the trip home. The water taxi doesn’t stop anywhere near where I live, so I end up having to take the shuttle to a bus stop I hate – and I only figured out the shuttles by accident, I’d had no idea previously that they existed and were free – and then I’d wait for the bus I could have taken home from downtown in the first place, which goes almost to my front door. It is just faster to take the bus. The water taxi is really for the people who already live on Alki Beach, as it currently operates. I also felt disappointed that it now costs more to ride the water taxi with an Orca pass than it did with a regular bus pass, but I have other issues with the Orca system, which is confusing and poorly administrated in my experience. Zero customer service – it seems with Orca that the customer is always wrong. Park & ride options on the Alki side would definitely be helpful – I can’t understand who, exactly, IS allowed to park in the lot at Seacrest Park aside from the people who work at the clam place and the occasional tourist. All that aside, the new dock is much more pleasant to walk on. Hopefully they will straighten out the details. It was originally a cleaner, safer, more pleasant alternative to the bus. Wish they’d put money into running more frequent buses, because the evening commute from downtown to W Sea is always a major hassle. I’d take the water taxi dowtown in the mornings if they shuttle were not two miles from my house. Traveling within West Seattle itself is almost impossible. Takes an hour and a half, maybe more, to get home from the water taxi.

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