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New study means Olympia can keep dreaming about ferry service to Tacoma or Seattle

The dream of a ferry ride from Olympia to Tacoma or Seattle isn’t dead — but it also isn’t coming true any time soon.

In 2018, a Port of Olympia sub-committee looking into passenger-only ferry service for the area found a high degree of interest. That same year, State Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, proposed a bill to study the prospect of adding a ferry route here.

“The concept of a passenger-only ferry serving Thurston County seems to stir a sense of nostalgia from those who want relief from nightmarish traffic,” the Port of Olympia group wrote.

(And no, this has nothing to do with the former Washington state ferry that has been docked at the Port for more than a year.)

Hunt’s bill didn’t pass, but lawmakers this year approved $350,000 to evaluate the potential for new passenger-only ferry service in the 12 counties surrounding Puget Sound as well as on Lake Washington and Lake Union.

That work is being led by Puget Sound Regional Council, which did a similar study in 2008. Olympia was included early on in that study but fell off the list of new route contenders based on projected ridership and market interest, said Gil Cerise, program manager at Puget Sound Regional Council.

Some routes that study recommended have come to fruition, including service from Kingston and Bremerton to Seattle and service from Southworth to Seattle, scheduled to start next year.

More than a century ago, hundreds of ferries called the Mosquito Fleet carried passengers between Puget Sound ports. Service declined as rail and roads were developed, and the state eventually took over ferry operations.

The state left the passenger-only business in 2006 to focus on auto ferry routes. At the same time, it allowed cities, counties and transit agencies to collect taxes to fund passenger-only ferry service and lowered barriers to local and private ferry service, according to the 2008 study.

The forthcoming study will look at potential routes, terminal locations, demand and travel times — whether it would be faster to go by land or by water — along with potential emissions, other environmental factors and ways to speed up the electrification of ferries.

A report is due to the Legislature in early 2021.

While early in the process, an Olympia route is expected to be among those considered, Cerise said. But the competition could be steep.

“I don’t think I’ve been to a single outreach meeting where people said ‘No, we’re not interested,’” he said. “There’s lots of interest, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out where those near-term opportunities are compared to longer-term opportunities and get that analysis out.”

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.
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