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Private ferries are vying for their day in the sun

BREMERTON — There could be passenger-only ferries running between the Little City By the Sea and the Emerald City by the time Puget Sound boaters get their crafts washed and ready for the summer.

But private ferry operators and Kitsap Transit officials hoping to get POF services established have a small window of opportunity to meet that deadline.

At the meeting of the Board of Commissioners for Kitsap Transit Jan. 20, Executive Director Richard Hayes said the group will hold a work session within the next few weeks to nail down details that will help determine the fate of privately-run passenger-only ferries in Kitsap.

Aqua Express and the Kitsap Ferry Company are two businesses interested in working with Kitsap Transit to this end.

Aqua Express plans to create a Kingston run while Kitsap Ferry hopes to re-anchor the Bremerton run.

Both companies would like to approach the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission and apply for permits to allow them to establish these services.

However, because of legislation passed last year in Olympia, the private operators first need approval from the local transit authority, Kitsap Transit. This legislation allows the Kitsap Transit to establish passenger-only services within their area.

After voters shot down Transit’s proposal last November for taxpayer-funded ferries, private operators decided to try their hand at what they see as an “immediate need.”

Kitsap Transit’s legal advisor Jim Sells said a partnership between the transit group and ferry operators is possible.

“Legally, as far as passenger-only ferries are concerned, you can do just about anything you want in operations,” Sells told the board. “You cannot grant a license to Aqua Express but they can accomplish that through a contract (with Kitsap Transit).”

Sells said there have been instances in which it takes a few years to get through the UTC application process, but if everything goes right, private operators could have permits within six months.

The time frame is important for Aqua Express and Kitsap Ferry, with the pending boating season and the immediate need for enhanced ferry services, said Kitsap Ferry’s Greg Dronkert.

There are two ways to attain Kitsap Transit’s approval before approaching UTC, Dronkert explained. Get the OK from the board or have a formal agreement written up.

“We would prefer to go through UTC but would like to go into a contract with

Kitsap Transit to protect their interest and our interests,” said David Tougas of Aqua Express.

Dronkert said Kitsap Ferry has four boats ready to go between Bremerton and Seattle, with a round trip cost of $10.

Tougas said the cost for the Kingston-Seattle run would be $10.50 round trip but issues still need to be worked out slip.

“The Port of Kingston is prepared to do whatever we have to do to bring passenger-only ferries to Kingston,” said Barbara Kitchens of Heartwood Consulting who spoke on behalf of the port.

Kitchens said the port was formally requesting the bus agency to allow private ferry operators to establish a Kingston-Seattle run.

“We have always envisioned that the Port of Kingston was part of any type of a partnership,” Hayes replied.

Board members seemed to be dedicated to getting ferries up and running as soon as possible.

“I urge all of us to work on expediting an agreement and keep it simple,” said Kitsap County Commissioner and KT board member Chris Endresen. “There are so many unknowns, we could spend months working on contingencies.”

The board instructed Hayes to list all the requests, regulations and concerns regarding private ferry operations during the work session.

Following the work session, Hayes hopes to have the details worked out between the agency and the operators by the commissioner’s March 2 meeting.

“Generally, we’re optimistic that Transit and the board are (going) to identify the most critical issues and key issues so we can address them,” Dronkert said of the possible partnership.

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