BREMERTON — Kitsap Transit’s fast ferry service opened new commuting options with its 30-minute crossing to Seattle when it started in July.
But frequent commuters are challenging the service’s reservation system, which they say is cumbersome, difficult to navigate and open to abuse. The problems are getting in the way of a service that they say would otherwise be a significant improvement to quality of life.
Transit officials implemented the reservation system after voters passed a tax increase to pay for the service in November, with the goal of bridging the gap between daily commuters and more casual riders.
“We were sensitive to what we heard from the community during our sharing of our business plan,” Kitsap Transit executive director John Clauson said. “They didn't want this boat to be just commuters, they want this boat to be available for non-commuters.”
The 118-seat catamaran Rich Passage 1 can make the trip to Seattle faster than the state ferries, but it carries fewer passengers because of wake restrictions. Eight-eight of the 118 seats can be booked, and the remaining 30 are available on a first-come, first-served basis to walk-on passengers.
Elissa Torgeson, a Bremerton resident who works as a web developer in Seattle, happily voted for the fast-ferry measure in November because of the amount of time it shaves off her commute.
“I would say that anytime that I can ride that boat is a blessing to me and my family,” Torgeson said. “I work five days a week, it saves me six hours and fifteen minutes every week.”
While reservations allow everyday commuters to guarantee a spot onboard, Torgeson said the monthly process of securing those seats is a source of frustration.
Reservations through Kitsap Transit’s website open a month in advance (meaning riders booked December’s sailings on Nov. 1). The current system forces riders to book one trip at a time, instead of selecting multiple days or sailing times on one reservation.
“You select each trip individually, and each of those trips takes six to eight clicks. It’s very cumbersome,” said Fred Chang, a Port Orchard councilman who commutes to Seattle daily.
A confirmation is sent for each reservation, meaning everyday commuters sometimes end up with a dozen or more emails. Until recently, those emails were sent with a long string of numbers in the subject line, instead of the sailing date, which riders say was confusing and time-consuming to sort through.
Reservations for the two most popular sailings, the 5:40 a.m. from Bremerton and the 5:15 p.m. from Seattle, sell out fast. Those who miss the window or aren’t fast enough have to arrange a different way to get home.
“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel now, because people are actually going in and getting all the 5:15s first,” Torgeson said.
Kitsap Transit has been trying to make fixes on the fly as it receives feedback. The agency changed the subject lines in emails to the sailing date to make single reservations easier to find. A label on the Kitsap Transit website that listed fully-reserved sailings as “sold out” has been changed to “walk-ups available.”
Clauson said Kitsap Transit has talked to the system’s vendor, RocketRez, about streamlining the reservation process. Many of the changes have to be done on the back end, he said.
“We’ve heard those issues, and we’re working to resolve all those things,” Clauson said. “We hope to have a large portion of those things corrected before the year is out.”
However, the system has come with a host of other problems, commuters say. The first iteration of the system let a single rider book up to four seats on one reservation, opening the door to abuse.
Torgeson recalled a moment in October after reservations for the morning sailings were sold out.
“I’m in line trying to make reservations for the 8 a.m. (sailing), and there’s this lady who always rides and she’s talking about reservations. She says she has three extra tickets,” Torgeson said.
It was frustrating to Torgeson, who didn’t get all of her November reservations, that someone had three extra tickets a day “to dole out as she sees fit.”
While there isn’t evidence of intentional abuse of the system, commuters are still frustrated with no-shows taking away others’ spots. A Kitsap Transit survey in September estimated that one-third of reservations went unfilled.
Kitsap Transit responded last month by knocking down the number of spots a person could secure on one reservation from four to two. Frequent riders have also complained about the ability to reserve multiple sailings in a day, which Clauson said the agency has plans to correct.
“We're working with the vendor now on some of those other, bigger issues, like you can only reserve two sailings per day,” Clauson said. “Presumably that is going to be one in the morning and one in the afternoon, not all three of them in the morning and all three of them in the afternoon.”
Some have asked Kitsap Transit to require an account to make a reservation, tied to an email address or social media account. If someone was intent on abusing the system, they could easily make a second email. Transit officials hope curtailing the number of spots on a reservation will help solve the problem.
“Some are people reserving for more than themselves and their friends don't show up, some are people who are reserving for each sailing out of Seattle, some are folks who get a round trip and didn't show up for one-half,” Kitsap Transit spokesman Sanjay Bhatt said of the no-shows. “There’s a multitude of reasons, it’s just really hard to know.”
Most daily commuters seem ready to embrace fast ferry travel to Seattle but say bumps with the reservation system are holding them back. Different commuter arrangements, often involving a mix of state and fast ferry runs, have to be made when reservations can’t be secured.
Renee Biswell, a Bremerton resident, commutes to work at Wells Fargo in Seattle. She said the extra hour she gains on the way home because of the fast ferry is “like gold.”
“I’ve been really excited about this ferry because it’s that extra hour to have your commute cut down,” Biswell said.
Biswell said she only reserved eight sailings in October after the system kept kicking her off. At that point, her choices were to get up earlier and catch the state ferry or wait in line for a walk-on spot, which would do away with any time savings.
“Those 30 seats fill up fast because people have caught on now,” Biswell said.
In the afternoons, Biswell's only choice is to take the state ferry, because waiting in line for a walk-on spot would require her to leave work early every day. The 5:15 p.m. ferry from Seattle has an average ridership of 115, which is the highest of any sailing.
Chang and Torgeson have also had to alter their commute because of a change in schedule and reservation system problems. Torgeson didn’t get all her November sailings and said she will end up paying for a 10-ride WSF pass and will try to walk onto the fast ferry. If she can’t get on, she’ll catch the 5:35 p.m. state ferry.
Chang, who works for the Washington State Department of Transportation, also has to make a connection with the Port Orchard foot ferry every morning.
Kitsap Transit changed its commuter schedule suddenly last week, leaving Port Orchard foot ferry commuters in a bind. If reservation-holders don’t check in 10 minutes before a sailing, their spots are released to walk-on passengers. The new timing of the fast ferry, which will leave five minutes earlier, puts Port Orchard commuters inside that window.
“We’re concerned if we’re going to be able to make that crossing,” Chang said.
Kitsap Transit announced last week that Port Orchard foot-ferry commuters will be able to tell a deckhand if they have reservations when they board and will be exempt from the cutoff. But the dozen or so frequent Port Orchard commuters complained that there was no warning about the change.
The schedule is also heavily reliant on the Port Orchard foot ferry being on time, Chang said.
Despite the issues, commuters continue to return to the fast ferry service. Ridership for October was more than 22,000, which is the most in the first four months of operation.
“It’s a nice problem to have, because there is that demand,” Chang said. “People want to take it, they want to save time.”