First-ever ‘strategic plan’ in place, to steer King County Water Taxi service’s future

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

While Metro bus funding and Sound Transit light rail have held the spotlight here lately, plans are being shaped for another transportation service’s future: The King County Water Taxis.

They’re in the just-approved, first-ever “strategic plan” for the King County Ferry District, which operates Water Taxi service on the downtown/Vashon and downtown/West Seattle runs – read the final version here or below:

One of the first steps to be taken is to end the Ferry District’s existence as a separate entity. The County Council is scheduled to vote on “assuming governance” of the district during its 11 am meeting tomorrow, one week after, sitting as the Ferry District Board chaired by West Seattle’s Councilmember Joe McDermott, it approved the strategic plan.

Another big decision ahead: Funding, with the plan describing the service as “”currently financially unsustainable given annual revenue, service costs, and current and near-term capital improvement needs.”

Consolidating the district into county government will help, according to the plan, because it “will eliminate redundant functions of the District and County. Separate District contracts for Legal and Accounting services can be terminated and Ferry District staff will not be needed. The annual savings from consolidation can go directly to providing services.”

But that won’t cover the gap, the report suggests. From the plan, here’s a chart showing what’s happened:

In the first two years of the King County Ferry District, its higher property-tax levy helped build up a reserve fund. Then the money it was getting from that levy was dramatically reduced so that Metro could use the taxing authority instead (here’s our 2009 coverage), and there’s been an “annual operating deficit since 2010” – a $3.6 million gap last year, according to the new report.

This year’s costs are up because two new Water Taxi boats are being built – mostly federally funded, but still with a county share – and the county has a share of the costs for the new passenger-only-ferry terminal at Colman Dock.

The plan doesn’t recommend how much of a levy rate should go toward Water Taxi service, but suggests, “A sustainable levy rate going forward should consider the future capital costs of maintaining and preserving the current system.” And it notes that the service has improved its financial performance despite the tax situation:

In 2009, the first year the District operated both the West Seattle and Vashon routes, the farebox recovery ratio was 14.9% and the annual operating cost per rider was $14.47. By 2013 the farebox recovery ratio increased to 28.5% and the annual operating cost per rider decreased to $12.83.

According to Carrie Avila-Mooney in Councilmember McDermott’s office, no levy increase is expected through 2016, but the King County Executive would likely propose one for 2017-2018, and the County Council would have to approve it. Right now, the Ferry District is taxing county residents at 0.3 cents per $1,000 assessed value of property; the county has taxing authority up to 7.5 cents per $1,000.

That’s not the only suggestion the plan has for increasing operational revenue. It mentions “additional services with limited costs that would generate revenue for service (such as) dock leases, vessel maintenance services, and back-up vessel contracts. The water taxi could also evaluate advertising revenue potential or explore coordinated marketing opportunities with local businesses and organizations to boost ridership.” (Advertising space had been sold on the Water Taxi when it used the leased Argosy vessel Sightseer – local businesses, including WSB, could buy space for banners or painted signage on the boat.)

Another major task, and one that would carry an undetermined price tag: Solve the West Seattle terminal problem and find a permanent location. The county is in the sixth year of a ten-year lease for Seacrest, it points out, noting that “connections and parking at current terminals pose challenges. ”

Looking at a big picture that might also bring in a Lake Washington route (as studied in 2009) and might see the county manage future Kitsap County foot ferries, currently under consideration, the report suggests:

There is potential to grow ridership and expand service related to significant infrastructure projects near terminals, such as the Downtown Seattle waterfront development and a new Link light-rail station at the University of Washington.

To be specific, the plan suggestions, the Spirit of Kingston – now on the West Seattle route – could be “utilized in Lake Washington” service once the two new vessels for WS and Vashon arrive.

Regarding connections, the plan notes technological integration that currently exists, and more in the works:

The water taxi is fully integrated into Metro trip planning technology and One Bus Away. Also, the water taxi is currently working on a “Where’s My Boat” application to show where vessels are in real time, and should continue efforts in implementing the smart phone application.

Overall, the plan says that deciding on the level of water-taxi service the county wants to provide – continue with West Seattle and Vashon? add Lake Washington? or? – is the most important decision to make, to shape the next three to five years of operation.

SIDE NOTE: Plan input came from not only Ferry District directors (aka County Councilmembers) and county staffers but also from what Councilmember McDermott described as: “an advisory committee that included Greg Whittaker from the West Seattle Chamber and Victoria Nelson from the West Seattle Transportation Coalition. The advisory group also had representatives from regional transportation groups; PSRC, and the Cascadia Center, cities in King County; Kenmore, Kirkland, and Seattle, labor representation, and members from the greater business community. The advisory committee was very engaged and did excellent work in giving input into the plan.”

19 Replies to "First-ever 'strategic plan' in place, to steer King County Water Taxi service's future"

  • admiraldave November 10, 2014 (6:23 am)

    how about extend line 128 and 50 so you can get to the water taxi and increase ridership.

    How about limiting all the long term scuba divers that take all the spaces near Seacrest.

    just saying

  • Kim November 10, 2014 (7:58 am)

    I love the idea of adding a terminal or two farther north on the Downtown Seattle waterfront. A lot of people work in the Downtown retail district and the lower Queen Anne/Elliott Ave area.

    • WSB November 10, 2014 (8:38 am)

      Kim – way back in the early days of the Water Taxi (’90s), it had a triangular route for a while, stopping at the Argosy dock AND at Pier 66. The latter stop was handy for my then-TV job up the hill by Seattle Center.

  • heather November 10, 2014 (8:08 am)


    Admiraldave. Really? Your suggestion is to turn Seacrest into an “all day” parking lot vs an area that serves recreation? There are kayakers, divers, a restaurant… And frankly, if you’ve ever had to carry the diving gear required to see the beauty under the water here you’d understand why close parking is appreciated. And if you see divers “hanging around” it’s bc they’re decompressing between dives.

  • Vanessa November 10, 2014 (8:32 am)

    What about a west Seattle to Ballard route?

  • Steve November 10, 2014 (9:47 am)

    Or ya know, we could purchase extra busses and bus service. The cost per rider listed at $12.38 per person doesn’t include Capital costs. Could someone provide that figure with the two new boats being laid down in Bellingham right now factored in? It wouldn’t be close to the price per rider listed here.

    Also, ferries are the least environmentally friendly option for commuters, and yet that is never mentioned.

  • Sweetie November 10, 2014 (10:26 am)

    Yes! Could you please still run on the weekends / evenings during the winter too!
    None of us stop living when the rain starts!

  • Heather November 10, 2014 (10:44 am)

    It would be wonderful if we could have water taxis like the ones used in Venice.

  • FAK November 10, 2014 (10:47 am)

    Can you elaborate on the terminal challenges? Are there proposed alternate terminal locations in West Seattle? Personally, I feel the Seacrest location works well.

    • WSB November 10, 2014 (10:58 am)

      @FAK – the shortage of vehicle parking has been one longstanding complaint, along with the transit connections and the time it takes to make them – the WT has the free shuttles, but bus service in that area otherwise is not exactly robust, so unless you can bike/walk or be dropped off, getting there and back can be challenging, plus appending it onto a recreational park/pier has had its challenges too. There have been past proposals such as “Pier 1/2” (here’s a WSB story from 2007 – ) but they’ve always turned out to have a fatal error of some sort (conflict with port-serving rail traffic, for example, although right now, the West Seattle port side does NOT have that happening, with Terminal 5 temporarily out of service). I asked CM McDermott’s staff if a specific location was under consideration now, and so far, they say, no. – TR

  • William November 10, 2014 (12:34 pm)

    @Kim and WSB, the current Water Taxi landing for Downtown was determined based on convenience – it was already there. The State and the City have looked at moving that landing to the north end of Colman Dock and elsewhere many times over the past 25 years.

    The current Water Taxi location works reasonably well for sporting events at the south end of Downtown, but is not so great for commuters working in the CBD. A location at the north end of Colman Dock by the Fire Station would potentially give commuters access to the Marion St. pedestrian bridge over Alaskan Way, but that bridge will eventually go away (when the Viaduct comes down), throwing them back into crossing traffic like they are today. The Argosy location was good for access to the CBD, and did give people access to the University Street Hill Climb (great for young and able, but not so great for the older or disable commuter).

    Any strategic plan needs to address this age old question of where the Water Taxi’s landing should be Downtown. I do think having more than one landing is problematic, as it makes it more difficult to serve efficiently, and makes it harder for the infrequent user to know when to go – especially off peak when service is limited.

  • johan November 10, 2014 (1:33 pm)

    A triangular route to Pier 66 would be perfect for me! I don’t understand the comments about parking, there’s tons of free all-day parking along the west seattle waterfront. you may have to walk a block or two, but you’d have to do that in a giant parking lot too. It sure is nice to take the water taxi and avoid driving or the packed, slow, meandering buses. nice way to bookend your workday. and it makes no sense to make those 2 hr spots all-day, there are only about a dozen.

  • me November 10, 2014 (2:35 pm)

    That water taxi link has so much potential, I really needs to be taken advantage of. If it ran later I would use it all the time, as I live here, and work downtown.

  • Paul November 10, 2014 (5:27 pm)

    The railroad is still being used down there even with Terminal 5 shutdown. I was down there on a Saturday morning recently and watched a train pull north past Jack Block Park while switching cars around for the steel mill.

    • WSB November 10, 2014 (5:31 pm)

      Thanks, Paul.

  • brian ws November 10, 2014 (5:39 pm)

    Colossal waste of money. Say what you will about Metro’s bus inefficiencies. They pale in comparison to the subsidy for this service.

    Certainly those rich condo owners down by the water deserve our subsidy for their commute.

  • Art V. November 10, 2014 (7:55 pm)

    The King County Ferry District is and absolute failure. Look at the chart. The expenses continue up at an exponential rate.

    Kill it now. Disband the entire endeavor.

    One of the things about politicians is that they never seem to recognize, much less admit, a failure. They just keep pumping more and more taxpayer money into it.

    Well, Dow Constantine, this is a monumental failure with your name all over it. Kill it now or it will be the anchor that ends your political career.

  • Don November 10, 2014 (7:55 pm)

    King County ferry service needs to join the ranks of all the other discretionary county-wide services put on the ballot. If KC Medic One, AFIS and E-911 cannot be funded out of the general budget, why should the Water Taxi (aka Dow’s Navy)?

  • joel November 10, 2014 (8:35 pm)

    oh my the latest tax increases have not yet kicked in and we are already hearing about the next round of tax increase. let’s digest this last round and get used to opening the wallet even more before needing to take a loan out for the tax bill

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