The ferry from Bremerton to Seattle was not very full on this August day in 2019. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

The ferry from Bremerton to Seattle was not very full on this August day in 2019. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Ferry ridership drops due to snow, construction and options

Washington State Ferries saw a 3.2% decrease in 2019. A big factor was a February snowstorm.

By Michelle Baruchman / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Ridership aboard Washington State Ferries fell 3.2% last year, held down by February’s snowstorm, ongoing Seattle waterfront construction and alternative ferry service from Kitsap Transit, the agency said.

State Ferries tallied 23.9 million passengers, down about 800,000 from 2018. Despite the decrease, officials said there’s no cause for concern.

“We’ve had a seven-year run of going up and up. It’s not a huge red flag for us,” said Ian Sterling, spokesperson for Washington State Ferries.

Last February saw a 19% decline in ferry ridership during a record-setting snowstorm, and the numbers never caught up throughout the rest of the year. In fact, every month except for January and April had fewer passengers than in 2018.

The Seattle-Bremerton route recorded the largest drop, with ridership down by 15%. That’s a decline of more than 400,000 customers from 2018. Ridership on the state’s busiest route, between Seattle and Bainbridge Island, fell 2.2%.

Construction along the Seattle waterfront also weighed on ridership, the agency said.

The hassle of navigating the Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition and Colman Dock renovation “does drive some riders away,” Sterling said. “That was a dip we expected to see.”

Kitsap Transit’s fast ferry also may have contributed to the dip. The agency launched its foot-passenger ferry service in 2017, making trips between Bremerton and downtown Seattle in about 28 minutes, compared to about an hour on a state ferry.

Ridership on the Bremerton-Seattle fast ferry grew 7%, to about 300,000, from 2018 to 2019, according to data provided by the county.

The agency said those the numbers also were affected by the February snow and Colman Dock construction. In addition, mechanical issues canceled several sailings.

Kitsap Transit launched another passenger-only route in November 2018 between Kingston and Seattle that makes the crossing in about 39 minutes.

In Canada, BC Ferries, which operates on a fiscal year ending March 31, saw year-to-date vehicle traffic up about 1% and passenger traffic down about 1%. “We would consider our traffic to be flat,” Deborah Marshall, a spokeswoman for BC Ferries, said by email.

Meanwhile, the Southworth-Vashon segment of the Triangle Route, which gets its name from the three-stop trip between Fauntleroy, Vashon Island and Southworth in Kitsap County, saw the biggest percentage jump in ridership — up 5.2%.

More than 10,000 more customers took the route despite longer-than-usual wait times while multiple boats were out of service for maintenance and inspections last March.

Joel Sparrow, who has commuted to downtown Seattle on the Southworth-Vashon route since 2003, said “every week there is someone new” aboard the ferry trip.

One reason, he said, may be more affordable home prices in Kitsap County attracting people to the area.

Transportation officials approved fare increases in August that tacked on 2% for walk-on passengers and 2.5% for drivers that took effect in October. Fares will go up by the same percentages this May, and each ticket will have an extra 25 cents added to help fund a new ferry.

Sterling said he’s seen other fare increases affect ridership, but he didn’t think last year’s hike contributed to the ridership decline.

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