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Monday, March 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Kitsap board preparing to resume ferry service

By Susan Gilmore
Seattle Times staff reporter

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The once green-and-white Washington state ferry Tyee is now the newly painted, aqua-colored Aqua Express and sits at Pier 69 on the Seattle waterfront.

It's the most visible sign that private operators are gearing up to restore passenger-only service between Kitsap County and downtown Seattle, perhaps by this summer.

Kitsap Transit's Board of Commissioners is to vote tomorrow on whether to sign an agreement with five private firms to replace not only the state-run passenger ferries that were cut in September but to add a new route from Kingston, Kitsap County, to downtown Seattle.

"Our board is very unified in wanting this to work," said Chris Endresen, a member of the Kitsap Transit board. "All of us want to say yes on Tuesday."

The state ferry system eliminated the passenger boats, except for the Vashon run, as a money-saving move.

The private operators are meeting today with Kitsap Transit director Dick Hayes to complete negotiations, but both sides say the tough issues have been resolved and the operators will be able to go to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) immediately to obtain approval for the passenger service. That could happen within months, say UTC officials.

Argosy Cruises; Clipper Navigation, which runs the Victoria Clipper; Nichols Brothers Boat Builders; and Tom Tougas, who runs a boat-tour company in Alaska, joined to form Aqua Express to provide passenger service between Kingston and Seattle. It bought the old state ferry Tyee and just repainted and renamed it.

Another company, Pacific Navigation, wants to take over the Bremerton-Seattle passenger route.

The private venture was triggered by Kitsap County voters who in November overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure to tax themselves to pay for passenger-ferry service.

While negotiations have been going on for months between Kitsap Transit and the private operators, one of the sticking points has been how much autonomy the private operators would have and how the county would be protected if the ferry operation wasn't financially viable.
 
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Ron Templeton, attorney for the transit agency, said the county looked at three options:

• It could have allowed the companies to go to the UTC to seek operation permits with few restrictions;

• It could have contracted with the companies, which wouldn't have required UTC approval, or;

• It could do what it ultimately did — draw up a compromise plan in which the private companies would go to the UTC for permission to operate on the routes, but Kitsap Transit would maintain some control to assure they provide adequate service.

"What we didn't want to happen was for the operator to obtain the certificate and not maintain service and hoard the certificate until someone comes in with a better mousetrap," Templeton said. "Our first and foremost concern in this agreement will be defined levels of service, and if they don't meet them they'll have to surrender the certificate to the UTC or to us or an operator we designate."

For now, the private operators are proposing to run the ferries during the morning and afternoon commutes and charge about $10 for a round-trip ticket. Kitsap Transit hopes to raise enough money to extend that someday to all-day service.

Darrell Bryan, general manager for Clipper Navigation, said he is confident the agreement will go forward. He is looking to a start-up date in September for the Kingston-Seattle route.

Greg Dronkert, president of Pacific Navigation, which would provide the Bremerton-Seattle run, said he hopes to begin service this spring or summer.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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