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SoundRunner must increase commuter ridership by mid-December; program manager resigns

SoundRunner must double its ridership by Dec. 20 or face closure of its commuter service, the Kingston Port Commission decided Sept. 26. - File photo
SoundRunner must double its ridership by Dec. 20 or face closure of its commuter service, the Kingston Port Commission decided Sept. 26.
— image credit: File photo

KINGSTON — SoundRunner must increase ridership by at least five people per month by Dec. 20 or face closure of its commuter service.

Kingston port commissioners voted Monday to continue the service, to the mixed delight and disappointment of community members.

Commissioners heard more than a dozen comments from residents at the meeting, the majority calling for the commission not to give up on the SoundRunner passenger ferry after only a few months. While many said they understood money is tight, the service is desired and needs more time to be evaluated after the ORCA card is available for riders.

ORCA, or “One Regional Card for All,” is the fare transit card for King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties, managed by seven transportation systems, including Kitsap Transit. The card allows one method of payment for several transit systems.

“We’re trying to find a middle path ... between spending and nurturing,” Chairman Marc Bissonnette said.

“You can’t stop the boat after three months,” testified Linda Fyfe, executive director of the Kingston Chamber of Commerce. “Anyone who owns a business knows you need at least one good year” to evaluate.

Community members were also surprised when commissioners announced at the end of the meeting that program manager Meisha Rouser was resigning.

Rouser, who has a marketing background, said she took the position temporarily until a marine specialist could be found.

“I’m not a boat person,” she said after the meeting. “It’s just time [to leave].”

In her letter of resignation, Rouser wrote, “Due to a lack of support and trust from the Commissioners, I am no longer in a position to do what is required to make this program a success.” She added after the meeting she built a “good foundation,” but the program needed to be continued by someone who knows marine operations.

However, some testifiers said marketing is the problem — there isn’t enough. Others said the ferry isn’t just for commuters to Seattle, it’s an opportunity to “fuel economic development” by bringing in tourists.

The port has been subsidizing SoundRunner for around $75,000 a month. The commission originally approved an $800,000 subsidy over four years — funds that would be gone by next spring at the current rate of spending, according to Bissonnette. The commission approved up to $340,000 for SoundRunner until December. Some community members asked the ferry be continued for another year, but if ridership didn’t increase, to terminate the program completely.

Port Commission candidate Walt Elliott said he doesn’t believe December is enough time.

The shorter the amount of time, “the steeper the slope is to get costs down and ridership up,” he said. “The commission needs reasonable goals.”

Commissioners also agreed to poll the community, something many residents asked for last spring, before December when they will reevaluate the system again. Commissioner Tom Coultas said their benchmark is to add five new riders per month. SoundRunner currently averages 26 round-trip passengers from Kingston to downtown Seattle.

Rouser also said there is a number of cost-saving ideas SoundRunner has presented to the commission, such as lease or charter opportunities, seasonal shut down and extending the port boundaries to expand the property tax base. The ferry also offers special-event trips.

SoundRunner began its first run in October 2010, but shut down a month later due to weather complications. Service began again in June with Rouser, the third program manager. The first manager, Eric Osnes, reportedly was fired over unwillingness to move to Kitsap, and his replacement, Karen Arnold, left soon after her appointment for another job.

Many at the meeting were surprised at Rouser’s announcement and offered their thanks.

“[She’s] the driving force in terms of where we’ve gotten to today,” said Jerry Kirschner, another port commissioner candidate.

The commission also voted to officially accept the agreement joining the ORCA card system; cards will be available Nov. 1. SoundRunner is using some federal grants to fund the ORCA system, which cost $67,590

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