Aqua Express floats another extension

KINGSTON — Quiet passenger-only ferry rumblings are again being heard from Aqua Express and Kitsap Transit, starting with a request by the former to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to extend a suspension of service through June 4, 2009.

The extension would keep the prospect of a Kingston-Seattle foot ferry — a proposal that has flatlined in the past — on life support for two more years.

The question is, “Are Kingston residents willing to wait that long for direct service to Seattle?” Many want the issue resolved so they can take advantage of a faster commute.

“Everybody just wants to get a passenger-only ferry from Kingston to Seattle, we’re just waiting to see whatever decides to shake out,” said Port of Kingston Commissioner Pete DeBoer. The port is working on an application for a Ferry Boat Discretionary Program federal grant with the Kingston Express Association, though there haven’t been any agreements formal between the two groups beyond working for the funding. The KEA is proposing to run a foot ferry with a volunteer crew using grants and federal moneys until the run becomes self-sufficient.

That could be a tall order considering Aqua Express had to halt foot ferry service on the same run due to low ridership. The company started running ferries on Jan. 18, 2005, and was granted a suspension of service Oct. 1, 2005 because financing dropped considerably. It was granted an extension of that suspension in July 2006, which would end June 4.

This week, Aqua Express managing partner John Blackman hinted that Aqua Express and Kitsap Transit have several plans they are working through, but it could be several years before they come to fruition.

Whether county taxpayers will be asked to ante up or not is unknown. But if they are, it could be a big hurdle to top as voters soundly downed a plan to raise sales tax 3/10ths of a cent to fund the ferries Feb. 6.

Either way, the extension of suspension would give Aqua Express and Kitsap Transit a few more years to develop the projects more fully.

“Kitsap Transit feels like they have several options that could materialize that could help fund or partially fund a restoration of service,” Blackman said. “I don’t believe it will be ready for several more years. It’s the WUTC’s call on whether we will receive the extension or not.”

But Kitsap Transit’s legal counsel Ron Templeton said there are no plans for restoration of service in the next few years and the extension is just to maintain the groundwork already set in place.

“We are trying to preserve the status quo just in case,” he said. “So we won’t have to replicate start -up costs. We’re not that far into it.”

Blackman added the plans could become apparent in several more years, but there isn’t anything on the radar this year.

“After talking with all our directors, our decision on the Aqua Express petition is that we do not support the extension request,” said Kingston Express Association manager Nels Sultan. “There are better alternatives for Kingston and Kitsap than waiting until 2009 for another Kitsap Transit ballot measure. The Port of Kingston is on the right track by applying for grant funding.”

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