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Originally published Wednesday, January 4, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Run Southworth foot ferry privately, adviser suggests

A passenger-ferry service from Southworth to Seattle, operated by Kitsap Transit using private operators, makes the most financial sense...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A passenger-ferry service from Southworth to Seattle, operated by Kitsap Transit using private operators, makes the most financial sense among three ferry proposals reviewed by a consultant hired by a task force looking at Puget Sound foot-ferry service.

The options examined by consultant, Parametrix of Seattle, include:

• A triangle-service among Vashon, Southworth and downtown Seattle operated by Washington State Ferries.

• Two passenger-ferry routes, one between Vashon and downtown Seattle operated by Kitsap Transit or Washington State Ferries and a second Southworth-downtown Seattle operated by Kitsap Transit with private operators.

• A new car ferry between Southworth and downtown Seattle operated by the state ferries.

The Kitsap option would require the least financial subsidy and would recover more of the operating costs than the other two options, according to Parametrix.

Mike Anderson, head of the state ferries, has been promoting the new triangle service.

The Legislature last year couldn't decide whether the state should be in the passenger-ferry business, and it put a hold on any private operators running the Southworth route.

The whole issue of whether the state should be in the passenger-ferry business was turned over last summer to an 18-member task force, composed of legislators, public officials and ferry riders.

After the task force completed its work last month, it asked a consultant to look at the financial implications of the three options.

The group is to meet today and perhaps issue a final report.

Whether or not the diverse panel can pick one of the three options is uncertain. The issue will go back to the Legislature this year.

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"Parametrix didn't give the Washington state ferry proposal any ringing endorsement," Anderson said. He said the state is looking at the report before deciding whether to continue to pursue the triangle route, or simply operate the Vashon run and leave Southworth to private operators.

Parametrix found the triangle route would improve service from Southworth and make more money for the ferry system. But the consultant questioned the ridership estimates provided by the state, which assume the number of riders would double with the triangle service.

The third option, bringing a car ferry from Southworth to downtown Seattle, also makes financial sense, Parametrix said, but impacts haven't been explored about how this would affect traffic and parking in downtown Seattle, something that concerns the city of Seattle.

In a letter to Anderson, Grace Crunican, Seattle's director of transportation, said the city would not support a car ferry from Southworth to downtown Seattle until it considered a passenger ferry from Southworth and Vashon to Colman Dock.

Among issues raised by the consultant:

• The triangle route would require a $1 per round-trip fare increase, or a 16 percent rise. The average one-way fare would be $3.68 for both the triangle route and the Kitsap Transit plan. That increase would likely cause a ridership decrease of up to 12 percent. The state estimates that riders on the route would grow from 188,000 last year to 393,000, more than double the number of passengers that now ride from Southworth and Vashon Island.

• The Kitsap Transit proposal would be 15 minutes faster in the morning and afternoon peak periods. The total round-trip would be 60 minutes, compared to 75-80 minutes under the triangle route.

One reason why the consultant said the Kitsap Transit plan makes more financial sense is labor costs. Because the private operators are nonunion, the hourly rates for crews range from $12 to $22, compared to $18 to $38 for unionized state ferry workers. Plus, the Kitsap Ferries boats would operate with a crew of three to four, while the state ferries require a crew of five, plus a shore side staff chief. "This results in significantly higher labor costs under WSF operation," Parametrix said.

"The real determining factor is not fuel or other operating costs, but labor," Anderson said. "[The private operators] will pay labor at a reduced rate. That's where the cost savings come into play."

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

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