A Tacoma City Council member is proposing a passenger-only ferry to give tourists and commuters an alternative to Interstate 5. Here’s what we know, and how similar services have fared here in the past.

Share story

As a traveling salesman, Steve Chapman’s job takes him all across the Northwest in his Hyundai Sonata. He lives in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood and sets his own schedule, taking special care to avoid gnarly gridlock on Interstate 5.

“It becomes a disaster area,” he said.

For I-5 commuters with less flexibility, crawling along bumper-to-bumper is unavoidable and routine.

Tacoma City Council member Ryan Mello wants to give those drivers — and tourists — an alternative to the I-5 traffic headache. He’s pushing the idea of a passenger-only fast ferry between his city and Seattle.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab »

“The more cars you can get off the freeway, the better,” Chapman said in support. “If you work downtown and jump on a ferry, that could make for a much better commute.”

For this week’s column, we spotlight Mello’s idea — similar to the new 118-passenger fast ferry between Seattle and Bremerton — and dive into The Seattle Times archives to revisit the region’s storied history of ferry service.

A fast ferry between Tacoma and Seattle remains hypothetical, as talks among transit leaders are only beginning.

Mello said he imagines a passenger-only ferry similar in size to the Bremerton-Seattle vessel that began service in July.

He said his colleagues are on board, and their next step is getting regional transit leaders’ support to study the route’s logistics.

“There are lots of questions,” Mello said. “What’s the price point going to be? How often should it run to be of usefulness to commuters? Where would it take off in Seattle? Where would it take off in Tacoma? Will it stop in communities in between?”

Answers could come from a feasibility study, which the Pierce County Transit Board of Commissioners has the authority to launch.

Pierce Transit has started “very preliminary discussions” over whether or not to do the analysis, agency spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet said.

Tacoma dock locations worth considering include the Washington State Ferries terminal at Point Defiance and the former dock of the region’s 19th-century steamboats, the Mosquito Fleet, which is walking distance from downtown, Mello said.

That way, ferry passengers could easily shop or visit a brewery or art museum. “It’s not just providing another commuter option,” he said. “It does have the opportunity to be an economic driver for us.”

Port of Tacoma Commissioner Don Meyer echoed that point. A former executive director of the Foss Waterway Development Authority, he has supported a Tacoma-to-Seattle passenger ferry for years.

“We have to move tourists around our region without having them be stuck on the roads,” Meyer said. “With a little bit of money, we could have the infrastructure.”

Ferries in Washington date back to the 1850s, when captains in the Mosquito Fleet competed for the best routes to carry passengers and goods across Puget Sound.

That era ended in the 1930s as boat travelers migrated to land, where expanding roads and railroads offered more options. Just one ferry service, the Black Ball Co., operated until after World War II when Washington State Ferries took over and eventually built the system we know today.

Tens of thousands of ferry commuters and vacationers board each day from the state’s 20 terminals, from as far north as Sidney, B.C., to as far south as Point Defiance. Ridership peaks in the summer; the busiest route, between Seattle and Bainbridge Island, carried 1.4 million people this past summer alone, WSF reported.

The state ferry fleet is set to grow to 24 vessels next year, when the $122 million Suquamish comes online as the last of four Olympic-class” vessels the service has added in recent years.

The ferry agency had its own passenger-only vessel between Seattle and Bremerton throughout the 1990s, before property owners on the shores of Rich Passage filed a lawsuit, complaining the boat wakes were eroding their beaches. A judge ordered the vessels to cut speeds, which led to lower ridership, and the state canceled service in 2003.

A private passenger-ferry service launched in 2004, but shut down three years later due to cost.

That remained the last try at passenger-only service in Puget Sound until Kitsap Transit launched its Bremerton-to-Seattle fast ferry this year.

Funded by a voter-approved sales tax increase in Kitsap County, the passenger ferry makes the trip in about half the time as the state ferry, for a higher price. A round-trip ticket is about 50 percent more than the state’s fare.

Only one fast ferry operates on the route now, and mechanical problems have forced it out of service multiple times since the launch.

But Kitsap Transit plans to expand the service in coming years, with three ferries on the Bremerton-Seattle route as well as service to Kingston in 2018 and Southworth in 2020.

Got a question?

If you have a question or idea for us, send it to trafficlab@seattletimes.com. We may feature it in an upcoming column.

Last week, we explained Seattle’s speed limits after a few people contacted us confused. The week before, we shared people’s stories about crosswalks and spotlighted the Washington law that says pedestrians have the right of way at all intersections.