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Aqua Express service suspended

KINGSTON — Aqua Express officials have tried to keep their financial books afloat for as long as they could but factors, including the recent increase in fuel prices, have sunk the efforts of the privately-owned passenger-only ferry service.

However, proponents aren’t completely down as they hope to have service up and running again next summer.

A letter requesting approval of suspension of the service starting Oct. 1 was sent to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) this week, citing increasing fuel costs, unexpected legislative regulations and low ridership as primary reasons. Operations will cease Sept. 30.

Service is scheduled to resume when the state legislature receives and acts on an ongoing study of passenger-only ferries in Puget Sound and lifts its freeze on regulatory expansion of private operators on July 1, 2006.

Aqua Express spokesman Jim Boldt said the partners in the company — Argosy Cruises, Clipper Navigation, Four Seasons Marine Services and Nichols Brothers Boat Builders — tried everything to keep it running.

“It is possible that we could have reached a break-even point with only one of the factors working against us, but all of these conditions will drag down a startup business,” said managing partner John Blackman. “Aqua Express had always known its viability was based on multi-route business made up of Kingston and other routes, including the Southworth/Seattle. The state of Washington government and the legislature closed the door on another business by stopping our permitting process for Southworth in full stride.”

In 2003, after the state allowed passenger-only ferries to be run by transit agencies, with joint development agreements with private carriers, Aqua Express and others obtained permits for various routes, including Kingston to Seattle. Aqua Express also requested a permit for Southworth to Seattle.

However in 2004, the legislature asked the Washington State Department of Transportation to look into providing the POF service again.

Earlier this year, legislation was passed that blocks private companies from operating routes alone, does not fund the state system and calls for another study (Senate Bill 6091, Section 205).

Despite the setbacks, the partners, who have a joint development agreement with Kitsap Transit, decided to keep going with the Kingston service and try and make it work.

“There really isn’t a gremlin here,” Boldt said. “The partners always looked at a multi-route business.”

Also, ridership numbers just weren’t where officials had expected them to be at the end of the summer.

“Not bad but it’s off-mark,” Boldt said. “It’s not coming up like we thought it would.”

The boat is averaging 300 riders a day and 500 are needed to break even.

As to why ridership is so low, the staff is “perplexed,” as they studied the WSDOT’s passenger-only ferry study, which included data on potential ridership numbers from Kingston to Seattle, and Kitsap Transit’s ridership numbers, plus they completed their own market analysis.

“All showed very strong ridership,” Boldt said. “I guess people underestimate how long it takes people to change their travel habitats.”

And finally, fuel costs have hit the company hard. That expense for the Aqua Express has increased 74 percent since operations started in January, Boldt said. While the company received permission from the UTC to pass the cost to riders through fare hikes, Boldt said it didn’t want to do that.

Officials are now talking with Kitsap Transit about their agreement and are trying to decide what further assistance Kitsap Transit can provide for the POF.

For now, the company hopes to use the ferry within one of the partner’s companies and to support the current staff.

“We’re very interested in taking care of our staff and helping them find work,” Boldt said.

As for the rerouted buses that currently meet Aqua Express sailings, Kitsap Transit service development director John Clauson said he and his staff will be taking another look at new routes.

“We’re going to make some new changes as a result of their decision,” he said.

For instance, buses meeting the needs of Hansville commuters currently go to Bainbridge Island ferry terminal in the morning, but meet the afternoon arrivals of Aqua Express. Clauson said the afternoon routes will have to be changed to meet the Bainbridge Island evening ferries.

The new schedules will be ready to go by Oct. 1, he said.

Kingston resident and longtime POF supporter Sonny Woodward said he was disappointed by the announcement, but has strong convictions that a Kingston-Seattle POF will operate again.

“The service is such a needed service for Puget Sound,” he said. “It will rise again in some form or another. It’s pretty obvious with these fuel costs, it’s killing everybody.”

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