A new report on the state of passenger-only foot ferry service to Seattle pushed Kitsap Transit to partner with King County, fix a broken reservation system and secure a backup vessel.
The Kitsap Transit board of commissioners on Tuesday heard recommendations on how to improve its fledgling fast-ferry program from consultant Darrell Bryan, former CEO of Victoria Clipper Vacations.
Fast-ferry service to Seattle began in July 2017 and has had a bumpy start. Frequent mechanical breakdowns plagued Kitsap Transit's only vessel, the Rich Passage 1, and riders complained about a cumbersome reservation system and poor communication.
In response, the board formed an ad hoc committee that hired Bryan to do a complete overview of the program, including mechanical issues, staffing, the reservation system and customer experience.
Bryan laid out a number of recommendations to the board Tuesday, with the highest priority being securing an agreement with King County Marine Division to run the service.
A partnership with KCMD to run the program was in the original passenger-only ferry plan. The two sides couldn't come to an agreement before service was scheduled to start in July, so Kitsap Transit hired its own crew and still operate the boat.
“King County has the infrastructure in place, I think by most counts they have done good job of providing consistent, reliable service,” Bryan said.
Letting King County run the day-to-day service would also give Kitsap Transit time to focus building infrastructure and decide if it wants to operate the service long term.
Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson called getting an agreement in place with KCMD “imperative.”
“The system is being set up, we need to transfer that development over to King County Marine. They already have a system,” Erickson said. “Why are we reinventing the wheel, re-creating all of these systems internally, when they're already doing it?”
Talks with King County were ongoing until the board hired Bryan, according to Kitsap Transit executive director John Clauson.
“King County stopped the meeting that was scheduled and was in the position of, 'Let's wait and see what the outcome of this effort would be,'” Clauson told the board.
Bryan also recommended the board lease KCMD's backup boat, the Spirit of Kingston, until more vessels can be built for the Bremerton route. A dedicated backup is still a year away at least. The company that's building that boat, All-American Marine, also built the Spirit of Kingston.
In the report, Bryan writes that most of the service cancellations in the first few months of service could have been avoided with a backup boat. The Spirit of Kingston was also tested for wake performance and could make it through Rich Passage without damaging shorelines.
According to Clauson, Kitsap Transit received a draft agreement to use the boat in the last month. Pending any legal issues, he said an agreement could be signed soon. Kitsap Transit could use the boat when the RP1 was undergoing maintenance, but King County would get priority.
Another point of frustration for commuters is the fast ferry's reservation system, which they say has a slow, clunky interface and is easy to abuse. Most recently, a glitch caused January sailings on the most popular routes to be overbooked, meaning reservation holders wouldn't be guaranteed a spot.
In his report to the board, Bryan recommended scrapping the reservation system entirely and hiring a consultant to find one that matches Kitsap Transit's specific requirements.
“There are a lot of reservation systems out there, but you really got to do your due diligence, because a lot of people have been hurt by selecting the wrong system,” Bryan said.
The current system “fails both financially and in providing service to the commuting public,” the report says. The report also recommends Kitsap Transit look into penalizing riders who make a reservation and then don't show.
One possible solution to the problem, according to Clauson, is to tie reservations to an ORCA card serial number. While it wouldn't allow the agency to take money off an ORCA card like normal, no-shows could at least be tracked.
Bryan's report also addresses the expansion of Kitsap Transit's fleet, including the shipping and refurbishment of the M/V Finest for the Kingston route, negotiating docking space in Seattle, a training program for staff and annual fare increases.
Board members urged Kitsap Transit to fill the Marine Services Director position as quickly as possible. The position was left vacant last month after former director Casey Harrington resigned suddenly. Harrington wasn't able to be reached for comment, and Kitsap Transit officials said he didn't give a reason for the resignation.
In his report, Bryan writes that Harrington, “failed to demonstrate his ability to work with marine industry businesses and regulatory and cross-functional agencies in order to successfully operate a marine division.”
Harrington also “does not appear to have the knowledge or skill set to perform effectively as a marine operations leader or manager. In fact, he has alienated many people within the industry and within the organization,” according to the report.
The board voted unanimously to adopt Bryan's highest priority recommendations and table the rest for later.