King County is back with its romantic, quixotic and nonsensical plan to revive the Mosquito Fleet foot ferries across Lake Washington.
Warning label: Six years and seven months ago, I wrote pretty much this exact column. The details have scarcely changed. It’s a carbon-copy repeat.
But it’s not my fault. When local government keeps reviving the same zombie idea, what can you do but flog it again?
The bad idea in this case has been promoted around here for decades. That’s despite every study, seven in all, concluding it makes little sense.
I’m talking about the romantic notion of passenger ferries. King County again wants to re-create the old Mosquito Fleet that once plied Lake Washington and Puget Sound. You know, back in the days before bridges.
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Last week, the Metropolitan King County Council reviewed a 254-page proposal to start up to three new boat lines, from Kenmore and Kirkland to the UW on Lake Washington and from Shilshole to Pier 51 downtown on the Sound. The startup cost for the docks and boats would be $23 million, paid for by a future property-tax levy on county residents.
The council could decide on the plan this fall.
Déjà vu, because this study — just like the last one — finds that the ferries would draw a vanishingly small number of riders and would be slower than any form of transit save maybe the hot-air balloon.
Example: A route from Kirkland’s waterfront to the UW is projected to have only 300 riders per day in the summer and 150 in winter. The boat would average 21 minutes longer round trip than a corresponding bus, while the fares would be nearly twice as high, estimated at $5.25 each way.
But none of that is the worst part. When it opens, the Kirkland water taxi is projected to have an operating cost of $29 per rider per trip. That’s not counting the capital costs. That means each passenger to board one of these boats would cost taxpayers about $24.
Claudia Balducci, of Bellevue, is clearly new to the Metropolitan King County Council, because when presented with these numbers in a hearing last week, she said something completely grounded and sensible.
The county could get the same effect “by paying taxis to come to the Kirkland waterfront and drive people all the way around to the University of Washington,” she said.
She was not well-received by some of her colleagues, who seem besotted by the mystical allure of the sea.
The last time this came up, in 2009, the foot-ferry folly eventually got killed off, supposedly due to the recession. King County runs a few lines such as the one to Vashon Island, which makes sense because … because it’s an island.
But there are bridges across the lake. And one of them, Highway 520, is being rebuilt at great expense with two extra lanes for buses. When it opens in April, it will make the proposed cross-lake ferry line even more quixotic.
It’s long been a curiosity to me how Seattle has fancied toy transit instead of the real thing. There’s the streetcars, the bike share, this obsession with foot ferries that would carry fewer riders than even the bike share. For years, the only train in town was a milelong monorail, like we’re Disney World.
But nobody’s going to vote you out for pushing something as adorable as a foot ferry. Even at $29 per ride.
Next month, though, Seattle is taking a huge step toward growing up. It took 20 years since voters first approved it, and it’s officially 10 years behind the original schedule, but we’re finally opening a real subway line under the densest part of the city, Capitol Hill, to the University District and beyond.
As Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom put it, this will be “arguably the biggest transportation advance in Seattle since 1989, when the Homer Hadley floating bridge was added to the I-90 corridor across Lake Washington.”
It’s going to carry tens of thousands of riders per day fast, not dozens slowly. Because of that, light rail’s per-rider cost is $5.50 and dropping, according to a County Council staff report on the foot ferries. Those unromantic buses that will soon have a new lane on the 520 bridge? They cost only $4.27 per rider.
We’re not the Emerald City anymore. More real transit, please. Fewer toys.