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Riders still on board with struggling Kingston passenger ferry

SoundRunner service was suspended Nov. 18 after an engine failed on the Spirit of Kingston ferry. The Port of Kingston has been unable to use the Kingston Express (above) because it is unstable at the dock in rough seas. - Tad Sooter/Staff Photo
SoundRunner service was suspended Nov. 18 after an engine failed on the Spirit of Kingston ferry. The Port of Kingston has been unable to use the Kingston Express (above) because it is unstable at the dock in rough seas.
— image credit: Tad Sooter/Staff Photo

KINGSTON — With a broken boat and looming funding concerns, the Port of Kingston turned to riders for guidance this week.

At a community meeting Monday port officials asked riders if they were still on board with SoundRunner following a tumultuous start to the service.

"We're doing the best we can, we encountered some problems," port Commission Chair Pete DeBoer said. "The big question is, should we keep doing this?"

"Yes," seemed to be the consensus among the roughly 75 residents who filled the Kingston Cove Yacht Club. But riders urged the commissioners to focus on consistency and communication when the service resumes.

"I think we have one heck of an opportunity as a community," Jim Simpson of Jefferson Point said. "Let's make a good run at it."

SoundRunner faces a host of challenges, both short-term and long-term as it moves ahead, DeBoer said.

In the short term the port must finish replacing a failed engine onboard the Spirit of Kingston, which forced the port to suspend service indefinitely on Nov. 18. The service needs a new manager too. DeBoer said Karen Arnold left the service recently. Arnold was hired as manager in October after the port fired SoundRunner's first manager, Eric Osnes.

It needs to find a way to use its rough-water backup boat Kingston Express, which is unstable at the port's ferry dock.

The port wants to include SoundRunner in the list of regional transit agencies covered by the ORCA fare card. The card is popular among, who use it to cover bus and state ferries fees. Many employers subsidize the card. At the meeting Monday, commuter Michael Szerlog said adding ORCA will help SoundRunner attract riders.

"I have many friends who aren't riding SoundRunner because of it," Szerlog said.

DeBoer said the port has been lobbying for inclusion and asked riders to contact their legislators.

Before relaunching service, the port also wants to find better ways of communicating with riders. SoundRunner was plagued by weather cancellations in its first month of service and alerts often went out to riders within an hour of the scheduled departure. DeBoer said riders need better information sooner.

"If they know what's happening they'll deal with it," he said. "The last thing we want is for them to find out about something when they get to the dock."

The Spirit of Kingston should be fixed within the next few weeks, but DeBoer said the port won't relaunch the service until it feels it can offer a consistent service for riders. That could take months, he said.

Riders, money needed

Even if these short-term issues are resolved, money remains a worry.

The port received a $3.5 million federal grant to buy its two ferries and pay for terminal improvements, but only $150,000 in state funding for operations. The port leased out both its ferries over the summer season, earning another $400,000. It has paid for SoundRunner's administrative costs out of its own operating budget. After covering start up costs, the port has $340,000 left to cover fuel, staff and other expenses.

The service is nowhere near breaking even. The port hoped to begin service with about 80 riders. Instead, about 35 regular riders were boarding the Spirit of Kingston before service was suspended. With a roundtrip fare of $15, the port was paying about $80 per rider, per trip to subsidize the service, DeBoer said. SoundRunner will need about 200 daily riders to pay for itself.

The port is competing for operating money, including a $500,000 state transit grant, and looking for more ways of making money with the boats, including charters and special event trips.

The bigger question, DeBoer said, was whether the port should dip deeper into its own operating budget to support SoundRunner.

The proposal drew mixed opinions from the audience and port commissioners.

"How willing are you to go into your cookie jar to make it work?" Kingston resident Steve Roseveare said. "As a taxpayer, I'm a little concerned."

Commissioner Tom Coultas said he wants to survey all 3,000 property owners within the port district to gauge support for the ferry.

Resident Walt Elliott said the ferry fits the port's mission of supporting the local economy.

"I'm surprised this is even a question," he said.

Despite the many challenges ahead for SoundRunner, port officials heard mostly encouragement from riders and residents Monday.

Ferry supporter and real estate agent Jan Zufelt said the ferry could be part of Kingston's long-term development.

"Kingston is growing in such a good way," she said. "Vote yes, keep going, don't stop."

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