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Kingston's SoundRunner ferry exhausts subsidy

KINGSTON — Kingston Port to residents and SoundRunner commuters: It’s now or never.

Port commissioners explained the passenger-only ferry’s expenses so far at a special meeting Tuesday, and admitted they were “optimistic” last fall when they allocated $200,000 a year to subsidize the service.

The passenger ferry system is expected to use its $200,000 subsidy from the port, earmarked for 2012, by the end of April at the current expense rate. The port has spent $641,536 since May 2011 subsidizing SoundRunner. In the first three months of 2012, SoundRunner grossed an income of $76,224.

Port Manager Kori Henry said SoundRunner has reduced operating expenses by 30 percent since last summer — averaging $70,000 per month down to $50,000 — but it is not enough.

“If we’re going to try and grow immediately, we need to reduce costs,” Henry said. The commissioners approved her suggestion to lower fares from $7 to $5 a trip.

The lower fare price, Henry said, was set to entice more riders — SoundRunner needs the lower rate to qualify for an ORCA program used by federal and state workers. Kingston Port bought into ORCA — or One Regional Card for All, a transit pass for King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties — last fall. However, Henry said negotiations for the Puget Sound Passport and Federal ORCA occur in June. She said with negotiations this year, she expects SoundRunner would participate in those larger commuter programs this fall.

Henry also suggested they sell the Express, the port’s second passenger-only ferry vessel used mostly for charters.

These immediate options may not be enough to save the ferry service. Many residents — some commuters — spoke up at the meeting and expressed their frustration at the cost of SoundRunner.

“I can’t believe we bought into the ORCA system and didn’t get what we thought,” said one commuter. “We don’t have savvy here in Kingston.”

Others said the port should shut down SoundRunner now, if it won’t continue through the fall, and save the remaining money for other marina business.

The commissioners will consider a resolution at their next meeting, Monday at 7 p.m., to authorize the use of 2013 and 2014 SoundRunner funds, $200,000 each, this year.

Commissioner Marc Bissonnette said last fall the commission was optimistic because of the projected ridership and recovery rate numbers, gathered by the volunteer Passenger-Only Ferry Advisory Committee, or POFAC.

“We love all the work POFAC did, but none of their numbers or projections were reality,” he said. “The assumptions didn’t turn out to be on.” He also said the price of fuel has doubled since the initial business plan, cutting into costs.

Commissioner Walt Elliott, who began serving in January, was more optimistic about running the service through this summer to evaluate just how much the community wants the service.

“We make the decisions [to continue service], but people make the decision whether they use [SoundRunner] or not,” Elliott said.

Bissonnette added, “They need to vote with their feet. This is the last shot.”

The commissioners have several upcoming meetings with legislators, and state and federal transportation officials to determine their funding options. They said they would reevaluate whether to continue SoundRunner in one month.

“I have never thought the port would be able to operate [SoundRunner] on our own,” Commissioner Pete DeBoer said. “If we don’t get any good news [about funding], I’m not going to vote to continue this operation.”

Bissonnette said, “I realize we put a lot of money into this. Even me, Mr. Ferry, but ... somebody’s got to show me some light that this is going to work.”

The commissioners did discuss proposing a bond to voters to subsidize the service, which many residents in the audience nodded their heads at. However, Elliott said the port district, at 4,000 voters, is too small to decide on a service that affects more than just Kingston residents. He floated the idea of a North Kitsap Ferry District, sizable to the school district, but conceded that would not be implemented in the “foreseeable future.”

Hansville resident Sandy Taylor said she thinks the commissioners have had a large amount of patience with this situation.

“I hope they decide to continue, get a realistic view of the situation,” she said. “So many things have not been vetted … Its truly a regional solution.”

Taylor said she and her family moved to Hansville from Bainbridge because of the SoundRunner service. She has no reservations about the subsidy, because all transportation projects are funded by taxpayer money — “just from a different bucket.”

“I hope people jump on board,” she added.

The commissioners will meet at the port office Monday at 7 p.m. The meeting is open to the public.

 

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