By Scott Schaefer

The Des Moines City Council at its June 23 meeting voted 5-2 to approve a 60-day pilot project starting Aug. 10, 2022 using a 63-passenger whale watching vessel from Puget Sound Express.

The high-speed ‘Chilkat Express’ foilcat boat, which has cruising speeds over 40mph and two outdoor viewing platforms, is set to cruise between Des Moines and the Bell Harbor Marina in downtown Seattle four times per day, from Wednesday through Sunday, continuing through Oct. 9, 2022.

Voting in support of the project were Mayor Matt Mahoney, Deputy Mayor Traci Buxton, along with Councilmembers Jeremy Nutting, Vic Pennington, and Harry Steinmetz. Opposing were JC Harris and Gene Achziger.

The approved contract requires the city to pay $87,500 per month to vendor Puget Sound Express.

UPDATE: Service will be FREE for the first week (Aug. 10-15), then will increase to $10 each way. Seniors and active military will pay $5 each way and children 13 and under will ride free.

If successful, the city may seek to expand service next year. No word yet though on what defines “success” for this project.

As many Readers may recall, in September, 2021, the city held a demonstration passenger ferry boat ride from the marina to Pier 57, with local officials, politicians and others on board. That demo was through Western Attractions, which owns and operates businesses on Pier 57, but is not involved in this project.

However, this will not initially serve as a commuter ferry, as departure times from the Des Moines Marina will be:

    • Depart 10 a.m., return 11 a.m.
    • Depart 12 p.m., return 1 p.m.
    • Depart 2 p.m., return 3 p.m.
    • Depart 4 p.m., return 5 p.m.

On April 14, the City Council authorized City Manager Michael Matthias to negotiate contracts in an amount not to exceed $975,000 in order to implement this pilot project.

“A passenger ferry system has long been considered as a project of potential value for our City,” the agenda packet says. “Recent events, including multi-modal transportation demands, prospects for Marina redevelopment and sustainable options to reduce environmental impacts of vehicular traffic have all created an opportunity to move forward with passenger ferry service.”

“The passenger ferry beta test is an important piece of the greater marina development process,” Mayor Mahoney told The Waterland Blog. To offer an alternate multi modal form of transportation that reduces the carbon footprint and takes vehicles off the road is integral to future movement within our community. The ease and additional access to and from our Marina is an important component to our future.

“Many residents in Des Moines I’ve spoken to are excited for this unique opportunity and I am too! I look forward to doing the loop during my workday by taking the light rail in and the ferry back.”

“I want to remind everyone, this beta test is not just about breaking even or ridership. It is also about the following:

    • “Logistics in the marina and the learnings gained from the program.
    • “Would the future include more frequent runs and include Tacoma?
    • “What additional value and dollars did it bring to the community, did visitors shop our Farmer’s Market or stores?Did they enjoy our town, and will they share the experience with their friends and family? Did they enjoy a meal at one of our great restaurants, etc?
    • “What pricing options make this feasible??”

“Our community should be excited!” Mahoney added. “We aren’t talking about doing things to make our city better, we are actually doing something about it. I urge you to take a ride to Seattle with your family or friends or have family and friends ride the ferry to meet you here! Give us feedback, let us learn and adjust the experience. This is an exciting opportunity for our City. One we hope you take advantage of!”

While many councilmembers, city officials and residents seem very excited about the passenger ferry project, Des Moines Councilmembers Gene Achziger and JC Harris are not.

Here’s a statement from Achziger:

“Let’s clarify: I’m not opposed to passenger ferry service in concept.

“I am, however, opposed to this haphazard test.

“Staff is presenting two quite different arguments for the ferry, a recreational use and a multi-modal commute use. This pilot project only addresses recreational use.

“This is not the four-month proposal we were presented on April 14. This is only two months. What are the metrics?

“I’m not willing to risk $290,000 on a test where we’ll determine the questions as we go along. And introducing variables such as providing the service free part of the time and implementing an undetermined fare for the other part will only cloud any test data.

“The admonishment holds: Measure twice, cut once. We don’t even know what we are measuring.

“But in general, I’m offended that the council is being given first-sight oral presentations with no readily available written data that members can use to formulate their questions before we are asked to make a decision. This is just plain bad policy.”

Here’s what Harris said:

“This whole thing is insane. I understand it’s a very fun concept that people have been talking about for decades, but there are very good reasons why it never happened. My tone is angry and I’m sorry, but this is only one terrible decision in a Marina Redevelopment plan that will span 20 years and $50,000,000. It is time for the public to start learning what their taxes are paying for.”

Harris adds that – in addition to the $975,000 the Council gave to the City Manager at their 14 April Meeting – the city has already sunk at least $200,000 in other costs into researching the project, including:

Private demand study $35,000
Ferry consultant retainer ($3,000/mo) with Peter Philips that will continue indefinitely. $72,000
A second consultant hired specifically to find this vendor. $7,500
Start up costs (docks, fareboxes, customer service, etc.) $90,000
TOTAL: $204,500

“And none of that includes staff time, schmoozing, various reimbursed business lunches, etc.,” Harris adds.

Here’s a video of the discussion and vote on this project from the June 23 Des Moines Council meeting (NOTE: yes, there are technical problems with the audio, but if you activate closed captions you can understand things a lot more):