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.”
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