Kingston passenger ferry planners don't want to repeat history

The Spirit of Kingston was christened in a March 28 ceremony at the Port of Kingston. - Tad Sooter/Staff Photo
The Spirit of Kingston was christened in a March 28 ceremony at the Port of Kingston.
— image credit: Tad Sooter/Staff Photo

KINGSTON — A bottle of champagne was broken over the prow of the Spirit of Kingston March 28, beginning a new era for Kingston commuters.

The Port of Kingston plans to put the 149-passenger ferry to work running four daily trips to Seattle as early as October and is busy building a roster of riders.

This is not the first time a foot ferry has ridden into Kingston a wave of optimism. The private Aqua Express ferry ran the same route in 2005 before drowning under a torrent of complications and expenses.

Port staff has a plan for overcoming the challenges that killed the Aqua Express, while rekindling the early excitement.

“The people who road the Aqua Express loved it,” Port of Kingston ferry project manager Eric Osnes said. “We hope to build on that.”

The Aqua Express got off to a heady start in January 2005.

The service was founded by a partnership of four companies — Clipper Naviation and Argosy Cruises of Seattle, Four Seasons Marine Services of Silverdale, and Whidbey Island’s Nichols Brothers shipyard.

Clipper President Darrell Bryan said rider surveys completed in Kitsap showed such a strong interest in passenger ferry service the group thought it might need two boats.

“We thought we were going to have a homerun,” Bryan said.

Aqua Express was planned to run in the red for a few years but expenses soared past expectations. The company employed the former state ferry Tyee for the route, a 20-year-old boat that needed continual maintenance. Worse, the boat burned nearly 200 gallons of fuel an hour and gas prices were soaring.

Bryan said Aqua Express wanted to bring in more revenue by expanding to other routes but was waiting for the state to decide whether it was in or out of the passenger ferry business. It was lackluster support from riders, more than anything, that spelled the demise of the Aqua Express.

Only about 25 percent of the expected riders actually came onboard. About 100 were riding regularly, and the number waned as the year progressed. The operation folded in September 2005.

“It just wasn’t the right time for us,” Bryan said.

Port of Kingston staff had the Aqua Express experience in mind as they planned their service.

The port bought the Spirit of Kingston — formerly Spirit — in February for $2.5 million, using a federal grant. It added a backup boat — Victoria Express — in late March for $600,000. The sleek Spirit of Kingston catamaran will burn 80 to 85 gallons of diesel an hour.

Because it will carry fewer than 150 passengers, the ferry will require only three crew members, significantly cutting expenses Osnes said. The port will try to charter and lease the boats whenever they are not in use.

The port’s biggest challenge will be fielding a consistent base of riders. It will launch an aggressive marketing campaign on both sides of Puget Sound in May to drum up interest among both commuters and casual travelers.

The port hopes to have 80 riders when the service starts this fall.

Bryan said former Aqua Express partners are following the port’s plans with interest and hope the service succeeds.

“I’m anxious to see how they do,” Bryan said.

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