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Originally published Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 6:09 PM

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Kingston tries to steer passenger ferry through rough waters

Kingston passenger ferry runs into stormy waters.

Seattle Times staff reporter

With great hoopla, the Port of Kingston inaugurated its new passenger ferry service to Seattle in October.

Within a month, the hoopla stopped, the victim of a broken boat.

An engine failed on the Spirit of Kingston, forcing the port to indefinitely suspend service Nov. 18. The boat has since been fixed, but the port doesn't want to restart service until it's certain the vessel is in good operating condition.

It may be a month before the service resumes.

Whether it will continue for the long haul is a huge question for the Port of Kingston commissioners who oversee it.

When it was operating, the boat carried only about 35 people a day, far below the initial target of 80. The long-term goal is 300 passengers a day.

Eric Osnes, the former ferry-program manager, said the operating costs for the ferry are about $2,400 a day, and the ferry needs those 300 passengers consistently to break even.

Commission Chairman Pete DeBoer said the port has organized a citizen-advisory committee to work out a business plan to make the ferry a success. He hopes to have that completed in a month.

"I would be so pleased if this would work," DeBoer said. "I wake up every morning thinking about it and go to sleep every night thinking about it. This is our chance to make it work."

The two-boat service began in October, funded primarily by a $3.5 million federal grant. DeBoer said it had to begin service in October or it could lose that money.

The port also received $150,000 from the state when the latter exited the foot-ferry business and sold its passenger vessels. The port also is applying for a $500,000 state transit grant.

The boat, part of what the port calls the SoundRunner service, can carry 149 passengers.

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Eric Walter, an architect who works in downtown Seattle, took the Spirit of Kingston on its inaugural voyage. He's a huge fan, even though it costs him more than taking a state ferry from Bainbridge Island.

"I want to do anything I can to make it work," said Walter. "If they have to shut it down and get their P's and Q's together, that's fine with me. I've wanted this for years and years and years and have done almost everything I can to make it work."

DeBoer said the port is considering changes that might reduce the $15 round-trip fare and change the return schedule from Seattle. He said the late boat was running with few riders.

"Unlike any other public-transportation system, we have no subsidy," DeBoer said. "We have to make it work from the fare box and that's a huge challenge."

He said the port also hopes to sign on to the ORCA card, which can be used on most public-transit systems in the Seattle area.

DeBoer said an advantage of the port boat is that it doesn't have to make money.

"A break-even situation would be heaven for us," he said. "(Seattle Mayor Mike) McGinn wants fewer cars in Seattle and this is a way to do it, just having this one little run."

Jan Zufelt, a Kingston Realtor and former president of the Kingston Chamber of Commerce, is a huge supporter.

"What happened is we got out of the gate too soon, but we had to because of the federal funding," she said. The port has hosted meetings about the future of the passenger service, she said, "and almost everybody who stood up at the meeting was there to say we want this boat. We just can't afford to not have this ferry."

Meanwhile, the SoundRunner has been running special boats from Kingston to Seahawks games, which have proved popular, said DeBoer, and the service almost broke even.

Even DeBoer admits its still too soon to see if the boat can be successful.

Said Walter: "There's lots of people who really want it to succeed."

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

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