SoundRunner ends Sept. 28, open to partners

SoundRunner is averaging 34 passengers in the morning and 47 at night. But without a partner, that may not be enough to keep the service going, officials say. - File photo
SoundRunner is averaging 34 passengers in the morning and 47 at night. But without a partner, that may not be enough to keep the service going, officials say.
— image credit: File photo

KINGSTON  — SoundRunner passenger ferry service will end Sept. 28.

Kingston port commissioners voted Aug. 22 to end their investment in the service. “I think we spent a lot of money [learning] we don’t have a market for our service,” Commission Chairman Marc Bissonnette said. “It’s an expensive lesson.”

Commissioners were up against a current of vocal disapproval from some residents and lack of resources outside their port budget to keep the passenger-only ferry service running.

“Our gas tank is empty,” Commissioner Pete DeBoer said. “We just haven’t had any help.”

To give the passenger ferry service more time to build ridership, the commission voted in April to continue subsidizing it using funding earmarked for SoundRunner in 2013-14. SoundRunner cost $429,377.54 to run between January and July 31. Ridership increased from the low 20s to an average 34 morning riders and 47 evening riders.

Port Manager Kori Henry, who is also SoundRunner executive director, said the service saw 60 evening riders twice the week before the commission’s vote.

Henry said she is “cautiously optimistic” of SoundRunner’s success if it continues with a different agency.

“I don’t see anybody that’s got the funding to do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there,” she said. To make the service more successful, Henry said she would have added more runs or changed the times to better coordinate with commuters’ schedules.

“I think it’s the right decision at this time,” Henry said of discontinuing service. “Especially having a dredge coming up. You hate to see it go, but financially [commissioners] had to make that decision.”

Some haven’t quite thrown in the towel.

“There still could be someone who comes up and says ‘We can do this,’ ” DeBoer said at the Aug. 22 meeting.

Commissioner Walt Elliott said public officials have urged the port to keep its options open, but the port has begun disposing of assets. The two boats, the Kingston Express and the Spirit of Kingston, were bought with a $3.5 million Federal Transit Administration grant.

The Express will transfer to Ketchikan, Alaska by Oct. 1. A few government agencies have shown interest in the Spirit of Kingston — King County, Port of Port Townsend and Kitsap Transit. Commissioners will look at the proposals in the next few weeks to make a decision. The boats must be transferred to other government agencies in order for the port to avoid repaying the grant.

The port no longer sells 40-ride passes. Riders can buy the 20-ride pass until Sept. 14. ORCA users will be able to use their cards through the last day.

Port business manager Scott Coulter put together SoundRunner expenses for commissioners at a special meeting Aug. 27. Total expenses from June 2011 to July 31 this year — which include the Pier 50 lease, and capital and operational costs — totaled $866,767. Coulter also included estimates of operational expenses for August and September, insurance of the boats until they are transferred, and reimbursement from prepaid tickets. Total cost of SoundRunner from 2011 to the end of 2012 is $1.02 million.

The port will face a loss from some of its investments, including the cost of buying into the ORCA system, the regional transit card for Kitsap, King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The ORCA machines have been purchased by Kitsap Transit.

Bissonnette asked port staff to calculate the economic impact SoundRunner had on the community, mainly in the form of employment. Coulter found that 30 SoundRunner employees were paid a total of $559,373 in the last three years.

“There are a lot of people going to think we burned $900,000 in a trash can out front ... but there have been some good things to come out of this,” Bissonnette said at the Aug. 27 meeting.

One of the boats, the Spirit, is available for rental until Sept. 28 and for ferry service if someone steps forward to operate it. The port asked state legislators to help find more state funding this year.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, 23rd District, said whoever runs SoundRunner in the future should not rely on state funding in their business plan.

“I will continue to work with them to help make the SoundRunner a success in future years,” Rolfes said. “But there is no magic pot of money. SoundRunner itself, to get state funds ... needs to be competitive.”

Rolfes said Kitsap Transit will be looking at its passenger-only ferry, Rich Passage, at the end of September to review its benchmarks, as Kingston has been doing.

Many advocates for SoundRunner said the goal was to build the service for an eventual regional transit district, which would share service costs. But Rolfes is doubtful of a regional ferry district any time soon.

“I think the whole West Sound region would benefit from having a passenger-only ferry service, but we need to get it to a place where taxpayers are comfortable with the amount of subsidy that it would need,” she said.

Dan Martin, a member of the volunteer-run Passenger Only Ferry Advisory Committee that resuscitated SoundRunner last summer, said he still has hopes for a “white knight.” The region needs a passenger transit service, but more agencies and partners need to come together, he said. He estimated Kitsap Transit’s effort in Bremerton is only a month behind Kingston’s troubled effort.

“I don’t see the [Kingston] port doing it again,” Martin said. “It’s too small to try to do this again.”

Bissonnette has been doubtful of the service for months, having seen many attempts in the last few years. He did not vote for the resolution to continue SoundRunner as a seasonal service.

Part of the problem, Bissonnette said, is that SoundRunner is such a lean operation, the port couldn’t afford to run the service more than twice a day, which didn’t always fit residents’ schedules.

Elliott praised Henry’s work and her team, and said the port only received positive reviews of the crew’s performance. Henry thanked the crew, the commuters and the business community for their support.

“Kori’s team met every objective we’ve set,” Elliott said. “We’ve built a solid transit system but we’re not transit, we’re a port ... We need a transit district.”



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