Reserved spots on Edmonds ferry run?

EDMONDS — Soon, it could be that anyone taking the ferry between Edmonds and Kingston can make a reservation and be assured of getting on the boat at a particular time rather than sweating it out and waiting an hour or more.

For those without reservations, it could mean waiting even longer at busy times than they do now.

This is one of the many issues the state ferry system is studying as it considers whether to test a reservation system on the popular, and often crowded, Edmonds-Kingston ferry run. The state already uses a reservation system on the Port Townsend-Keystone, Anacortes to Sidney, B.C., and San Juan Island routes.

No decision has been made regarding the Edmonds run. Ferry system staff members and consultants are sifting through a boatload of issues regarding how the reservation system could work on that route.

They plan to have a report done by Dec. 15. The state Legislature expects to use that information to make a decision during its 2010 session this coming winter.

“There’s no point in doing this unless it makes life better” for customers and the department, David Moseley, assistant secretary of transportation in charge of ferries, told members of the state Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday.

If it’s done correctly, travel should improve for all ferry users, especially at peak times; ridership could increase and the agency may save some money, Moseley told the Joint Transportation Committee.

State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, said the worry he hears most is residents will find themselves unable to make an unscheduled trip because boats are booked full.

It concerns Moseley, too. Educating users how the system works and communicating the latest up-to-the-minute information on vessel space and travel times is pivotal, he said.

“We have to be able to assure our residents they will have access to the boats,” he said.

Jauna DeMott, who lives in Bellevue and takes the Edmonds-Kingston ferry to see family in Port Angeles, said it’s a concern for her, too.

“I’m not the type of person who would make a reservation,” she said. “I’m not much of a planner.”

Ted Leniszewski of Silverdale, however, said perhaps a reservation system could work during the peak season.

“In summertime, it would probably be a good idea,” he said. “It’s packed.”

Reservations have been taken on the San Juan routes for more than a decade, while a reservation system began on the Port Townsend route in the summer of 2008 after service was trimmed following the removal of Steel Electric vessels from that run.

“If a high percentage of reserved vehicles show up, then there is a longer wait time for nonreserved vehicles,” said Joy Goldenberg, a spokeswoman for the ferry system.

No-shows are a concern, however. This summer, the number reached 35 percent on the Port Townsend-Keystone route, said Doug Schlief, senior shoreside manager for the ferry system.

On that route, people who make reservations in advance do not pay anything up front. Requiring they pay a deposit or buy the ticket at the time they make reservations would provide an incentive for them to show up, officials said.

In the San Juans, those who make reservations pay a small portion of the fare in advance and the rest at the toll booth. The no-show rate there is only 2 percent to 3 percent, Schlief said.

Still, the system has worked well at Port Townsend and Keystone to help keep lines from backing up onto nearby streets, Schlief said.

Edmonds-Kingston was selected as a possible testing ground because it’s one of the busiest routes in the system and it has the most variety of users: commuters, leisure travelers, cars, trucks, RVs and walk-ons.

It’s not been decided which features of the reservation system now in place would be used with the Edmonds-Kingston route if a reservation system is tried there.

At Port Townsend-Keystone and the San Juans, the system works like this: Anyone may call or go online from 30 days before the sailing to two hours in advance to make a reservation.

The percentage of reserved spots is capped at 70 percent for any one sailing. Any no-show slots are filled with drive-ups on a first-come, first-served basis.

If the lines back up past the toll booths and spill onto the street at Port Townsend and Keystone, ferry employees go car to car to see who has reservations and hold open a booth to send them into the holding area. There, lanes are divided for commercial vehicles, vehicles with reservations and those without.

The Anacortes set-up is different. There, the holding area is much larger and vehicles are sorted after the drivers pay.

Many other ferry systems around the world — including British Columbia — have reservation systems. The ferry system has contacted many of them, officials said.

Cedar River Group, a state-hired consultant, sent a staff member to Istanbul, Turkey, and the Isle of Wight in England this summer to look at their systems. The company paid for the trip independently of what it receives from the state, Moseley said. A report was presented to lawmakers Wednesday.

It showed at terminals in both countries, reservations account for a large majority of travelers and there is room for arranging cars by sailing times so those who come early don’t impede the flow of traffic.

Also, travelers can buy tickets in advance from self-service booths that don’t take cash or occupy less space than existing ferry toll collection booths.

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