Port does CPR on SoundRunner

The Port of Kingston is pushing to attract more commuters for the passenger-only ferry service, SoundRunner.      -  File photo
The Port of Kingston is pushing to attract more commuters for the passenger-only ferry service, SoundRunner.
— image credit: File photo

Comments from Commissioner Bissonnette are included in this story, which were not added to the print edition before deadline.

KINGSTON — The Port of Kingston has faith that the community can keep SoundRunner afloat. With a 2-to-1 vote at the Board of Commissioners meeting April 23, SoundRunner has been given a reprieve at least until Sept. 30.

"This time yesterday I was still on the fence," said Commissioner Pete DeBoer, around noon on April 24. He said he knew from his business background that start-ups need time to work out the kinks. He and Commissioner Walt Elliott voted to continue the service, while Commissioner Marc Bissonnette voted to discontinue as of May 31.

Port Manager Kori Henry said public opinion was split at the board meeting, with half firmly supportive of the service continuing, and the other half adamantly against due to the amount of money being spent.

The commissioners also voted to use $200,000 of port money, allocated for the foot ferry service in 2013, to sustain the service for the next five months. DeBoer said the way the ferry runs now, SoundRunner would need about $300,000 to continue service.

"But we don't intend to stay at the status quo," he said. Increasing ridership is their best option — with a growing and consistent ridership, the port is able to receive transportation grants from the state and federal governments, as well as support from the state Legislature, according to Henry.

She agreed with DeBoer, and said the service needs more time to sort out schedules, so everyone is served.

"If we have longevity, it will give [commuters] the opportunity to change to us," she said.

Bissonnette did not agree — because the port had not received funding it was counting on this year, from Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council and Puget Sound Regional Council, he does not anticipate SoundRunner receiving funding in the future.

"Every time we don't meet with success in this project, we lower our expectations, and it's getting us deeper and deeper," he said. He does agree that ridership is key, but the business plan began with an average of 70 riders, not 25.

"A new start-up ferry venture thats losing this much money percentage-wise is not going to get money," he said. " We're bringing back 10 cents on the dollar."

The port will be selling the second ferry, the Express, which had primarily been used for charters. While the port wants to continue to provide charter opportunities and weekend runs for family events, Henry said they are going to be marketing, from a grassroots level, more aggressively for commuters more than tourism.

Business owners approached Henry at the commission meeting, offering to help spread the word, and DeBoer said he has been talking with local businesses and community groups to encourage their support. Bissonnette was less optimistic.

"The business community, they're all energized again, but they weren't doing anything in town," he said. "Now they're offering free parking, marketing, but they waited for us to lose a quarter of a million dollars first."

Sonny Woodward, real estate agent with John L. Scott, said his level of support for a passenger ferry system goes back 14 years.

"We certainly try to do whatever it takes, try to work with the port on whatever that is," he said. One idea, which Woodward is behind, is to promote the ferry with tickets for their clients. However, Woodward said SoundRunner needs more regional support, and its financial burden is being unfairly loaded onto Kingston.

"Kingston is a poster child for [passenger ferries], its hard for the port to carry the load for a couple of years until other communities or counties get more involved," he said. "We can see the horizon in a few years…but we're not there yet. The questions are how do we get there, and who's going to bear the burden … until it becomes a popular form of mass transit."

Hansville resident Sandy Taylor is one of those commuters — she and her family moved from Bainbridge Island to North Kitsap because of the SoundRunner service.

“So many things have not been vetted," she said. "Its truly a regional solution.”

The port laid out SoundRunner's troubles at a special meeting on April 17. The passenger ferry system was 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 on the SoundRunner service. In the first three months of 2012, it has grossed an income of $76,224.

SoundRunner operates on the port budget and grant funding, but commissioners said their next concern is to find an outside source of money. At the special meeting, Bissonnette proposed a bond, but said the port district is too small for a vote that would affect riders around North Kitsap and some in Jefferson County. Many have suggested the need for a ferry district, and collaboration with other transit services, such as Jefferson County, King County and Kitsap Transit.

SoundRunner does have commuter competition: the Washington State Ferries offers a free ride over to Seattle, from Edmonds or Bainbridge Island, and the SounderTrain from Edmonds to Seattle is $3 a trip. SoundRunner will soon offer $5 fares and will be apart of the Puget Sound Passport and Federal ORCA systems for commuters, and currently offers van pools from the park-and-ride at George's Corner.

"Just hop on our boat one evening and see how easy it is to get home," DeBoer said.



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