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Private groups hope to float in on foot ferries

KINGSTON — After voters sunk Kitsap Transit’s proposed foot ferry tax in last month’s election, a group of private ferry companies is set on sailing another option for service from Kingston to Seattle.

Top officials with the Seattle-based Argosy Cruises, Clipper Navigation, Nichols Brothers Boatyard and TMT, Inc. have collaborated to form a separate company called “Aqua Express Ferry Service,” said Darrell Bryan, executive vice president and general manager of Clipper Navigation. While the four companies will continue to offer their individual services, Aqua Express will be a passenger-only ferry provider for area waters. A Kingston-Seattle run is the first goal.

“We all share the same vision on what can be done in the Puget Sound,” Bryan said, noting each company brings a different aspect of water transportation to the table.

Nichols Brothers Boatyard has been building more passenger-only boats than any other business in North America, Bryan said, noting Argosy and Clipper have the most qualified people as well as centralized docking locations in Seattle.

From a public policy standpoint, Washington State Ferries provides the best cross sound transportation, Bryan said. Private ferry services haven’t been involved in the past because they are usually too costly for riders, he added.

But when 60 percent of Kitsap County voters at the polls stated that they didn’t want to pay for foot ferries with sales and Motor Vehicle Excise Tax increases, the private sector decided to step up.

Aqua Express managing director and Argosy owner John Blackman penned a letter to Kitsap Transit Executive Director Dick Hayes this week, asking his support of Aqua Express and authorization of the company’s plans to provide service from Seattle to Kingston.

If Hayes OKs the proposal, Aqua Express will apply for certification from the Washington Utility and Transportation Commission to provide the service.

Because of legislation passed during the last lawmaker’s session in Olympia, the state-regulated WUTC cannot approve an application for passenger-only ferry services unless the local transit authority — Kitsap Transit — accepts the application. The group has asked Hayes to respond by Jan. 5, 2004.

If everything is approved, the Aqua Express is set to sail forward.

“We do have the equipment necessary,” Bryan said. “We have a vessel to operate between (Kingston and Seattle) and a back-up boat.”

There is already dock space available on the Seattle side and Bryan said he believes Kingston will be able to provide a spot as well.

As for costs, Bryan cited the results of a community survey taken about seven years ago in which residents said they would be willing to pay $10 round trip. But the company plans on distributing another round of surveys to the community within the next two weeks to attain updated opinions.

“We’re going to be distributing those surveys again to see what people are willing to pay,” he said.

If all goes well, Bryan said he believes the service could be under way within six months. Initial runs would be for morning and afternoon commuters between Kingston and Seattle. The group could also provide special ferries for professional sporting, too.

“It’s pretty darn convenient for a passenger-only ferry that is timed for football and baseball games,” he said.

Through all this, Hayes and Kitsap Transit will not be forgotten, Bryan said, as the transit service will help support land and water transportation.

The concept of private companies providing foot ferries in Kingston is not a new idea, Bryan said, noting that various private groups have been deliberating the idea with the Kingston Chamber of Commerce for the past decade.

“We’ve been involved in discussions with them for close to ten years,” Bryan explained. “But we’ve not wanted to get in the way to obstruct what the state ferries or Kitsap Transit has been doing but (we) have been waiting on the sidelines to be called in.”

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