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SoundRunner’s net loss: $900,000
KINGSTON — Mike Schabron first tried SoundRunner on a free ride pass and discovered that although the price was a bit higher than taking the Bainbridge ferry, it offered better benefits.
He didn’t have to travel as far and could spend more time with his wife in the morning. He called the Bainbridge ferry a “cattle call,” while the 50-minute ride on SoundRunner was relaxing.
However, he said he was reading and hearing different accounts of how much the port was spending on the service. The port is too small to pay for a service like this, he said, and there was no way it could have eventually relied on ridership to pay for the service.
“We’re powerful people in Kingston, but we’re not strong enough,” said his wife, Donna.
The Schabrons were right.
The last run of the SoundRunner passenger ferry service ended when the boat pulled into the Port of Kingston’s dock Sept. 28.
For the third time in seven years, the port found it could not sustain a passenger-only ferry service to Seattle.
“We didn’t get the help we needed, what we deserved,” Port Commissioner Pete DeBoer said at a last-hurrah pizza party that evening.
“We showed them how to do a frugal service that works,” DeBoer said. But, “we’re putting the service to rest.”
Passengers, including regular commuters, put together a little party for staff and crew to thank them for their service; many passengers said it was the convenience of the trip and friendliness of the crew that kept them coming back.
The 85 or so passengers gathered for one last picture together, ate cake and mingled with port staff, crew and their families. The party was bittersweet, especially for some of the crew that had seen a passenger-only ferry service start up, only to falter, three times in the last seven years.
The first problems SoundRunner faced stemmed from service; riders faced a lack of consistency due to weather or maintenance problems. The second set of problems focused on cost; many port district residents were tired of the service relying almost entirely on the port’s budget.
The privately-owned Aqua Express passenger ferry launched service to and from Kingston in 2005 and had the highest number yet of regular passengers — an average of 100 a day. The Port of Kingston tried again in 2010, when the port bought the Sprit of Kingston and the Express using a $3.5 million Federal Transit Administration grant. In October 2010, the service saw 75 regular riders but became plagued with maintenance issues.
The service relaunched in June 2011 under its third project manager. The Passenger-Only Ferry Advisory Committee surveyed commuters and potential riders, and estimated the port could subsidize the service at $200,000 a year with enough ridership.
SoundRunner burned through four years worth of port subsidies, $800,000, in just over one year.
Total expenses from June 2011 to July 31 this year — which include the Pier 50 lease, and capital and operational costs — totaled $866,767. SounderRunner’s 2012 income was $71,546.
Scott Coulter, the port’s business manager, also included estimates of operational expenses for August and September, insurance of the boats until they are transferred, and reimbursement from prepaid tickets. Net loss from SoundRunner from 2011 to the end of 2012 is $923,405.
Ken Brazeau, operations manager of SoundRunner, was hired when the passenger-only service was relaunched in 2010.
“I’m from Kingston, so I wanted to see this service work,” he said. He said SoundRunner was truly a service operation — unlike other boats he has worked on, SoundRunner didn’t separate crew and riders; everybody mingled.
He said its nobody’s fault at the port — even the state ferries are cutting back — but “sooner or later we need other modes of transportation to get to Seattle.”
Hansville resident Sandy Taylor said she thinks the commissioners have had a lot of patience with SoundRunner, and called the service a “truly regional solution.”
Taylor said she and her family moved to Hansville from Bainbridge because of SoundRunner, and she volunteered her time to market SoundRunner in the last several months.
“It’s a worthy cause,” she said at the end-of-service party. “You can’t ride [SoundRunner] and know the struggle and not do something.”
Taylor agreed with Port Commissioner Walt Elliott about instituting a ferry district so the cost wasn’t shouldered on one port district.
But while there are many ideas about how to make a passenger ferry service work from Kitsap to Seattle, many SoundRunner riders are begrudgingly heading back to the state ferries.