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History of Passenger-Only Ferries

The Puget Sound has a long history of passenger ferry transportation.At the turn of the 20th century a number of companies provided passenger ferry service using small steamers. Known as the “Mosquito Fleet”, this passenger ferry system operated between Seattle, Olympia, Tacoma, Port Townsend, Everett, Bellingham, Victoria, Vancouver, Bremerton, Vashon Island and Bainbridge Island and other Puget Sound ports.By 1910 Puget Sound Navigation Company, operating under the name Black Ball Line, carried 2 million passengers a year. By 1929, only two companies, The Black Ball Line and Kitsap County Transportation Company, were providing ferry service on the Puget Sound, and the service had been consolidated to fewer routes served by larger passenger vessels. In 1935, Kitsap County Transportation Company closed down leaving The Black Ball Line in control of ferry service on the Puget Sound.

Beginning in the late 1930’s, Captain Peabody of the Black Ball Line purchased 17 auto-carrying ferries from San Francisco Bay at very favorable prices as that region was phasing out ferry service and constructing bridges. With the introduction of auto ferries, Black Ball Line removed the passenger-only ferries replacing them with the new auto carrying ferries. The additional carrying capacity afforded by the 17 auto carrying ferries allowed the Black Ball Line to respond quickly to the tremendous increase in demand for cross sound ferry service during World War II.

However, after World War II, the demand for ferry service declined, creating financial difficulties for the Black Ball Line. In response to the financial crisis, Black Ball Line cut back service and implemented several fare increases. The public outcry over the fare increases led the Transportation Commission to order a roll back.In opposition to this action, Black Ball Line terminated its charter for ferry service with the State that in turn prompted the State to pass legislation that authorizing the purchase of Black Ball Line.On May 31, 1951, the State bought Black Ball Line for $4.9 million.  Washington State Ferries (WSF) now operates the country’s largest auto ferry service with 28 vessels carrying over 24 million passengers to 20 different ports.

The first modern experiment in passenger only ferry service occurred in the summer of 1978 when, WSF and Boeing operated a Boeing jetfoil for six weeks on the Puget Sound. While the jetfoil was deemed by WSF to be too expensive to run, WSF determined that high-speed passenger only ferry service offered a viable means of reducing automobile usage and promoting passenger travel.

After the jetfoil experiment, the issue of passenger only ferry service was notpursued again until 1984 when WSF conducted a planning study for their 1990-2000 Long Range Plan Update.This study highlighted worsening traffic congestion and steadily increasing ridership on the State’s auto ferries and recommended the introduction of passenger only ferry service from downtown Seattle to Bremerton, Vashon and Southworth. At the same time, a business group from Bremerton was urging the Washington State Transportation Commission, the governing board of WSF, to concentrate a passenger only ferry demonstration project on Bremerton to bolster redevelopment efforts in that city and to improve ferry service for Kitsap County residents.

In 1986 WSF purchased the Express (later known as the Tyee), a catamaran built by Nichols Brother of Whidbey Island, for $2.5 million using a $1.6 million grant from the Urban Mass Transit Authority (now know as the Federal Transit Authority).The vessel carried 319 passengers and operated at a cruising speed of 23 knots between Seattle and Bremerton. In 1989, WSF added two new monohulls, the Skagit and Kalama, built in Louisiana at Equitable Shipyards of the Halter Group. Carrying 250 passengers at a cruising speed of 25 knots these vessels were used to expand service to Bremerton and initiate service to Vashon Island.

Residents along Rich Passage, a narrow channel of water between Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula on the Seattle-Bremerton route, raised concerns about the shoreline damage allegedly caused by the large wakes of the high speed passenger only ferries. The State retained a consultant who discovered that if the passenger-only ferries were allowed to continue to run at full speed beach erosion and bulkhead deterioration would probably be accelerated. This finding prompted WSF to slow the vessels to less than 12 knots through Rich Passage in the summer of 1990, increasing the travel time from 40 minutes to 55 minutes, a savings of only 5 minutes over the auto ferry crossing. In their continuing efforts to operate high-speed passenger ferry service, WSF acquired two vessels, the Chinook in 1998 and Snohomish in 1999, designed to reduce wake wash and shoreline erosion. Although these two vessels were initially able to cross from Bremerton to Seattle in 30 minutes, legal action brought by shoreline residents resulted in the permanent slow down of service through Rich Passage on the Seattle-Bremerton route. In response to diminishing ferry funding caused by taxpayer initiatives and dwindling ridership, the Transportation Commission announced in 2002 its intention to eliminate passenger-only ferry service in 2003.The Washington State Legislature approved the elimination of passenger-only service to Bremerton in September 2003, but extended funds for passenger-only service to Vashon Island.At the same time, the Legislature approved new legislation granting Kitsap Transit the opportunity to ask the residents of Kitsap County to support a passenger-only ferry plan providing service initially from Southworth, Bremerton and Kingston to downtown Seattle.

For more WSF history see: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/your_wsf/index.cfm?fuseaction=our_history&print=yes

Updated: June 15, 2012