By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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“We don't want to lose this energy,” said Main Street Board President Heather Dudley Nollette on Wednesday after the three Port of Port Townsend commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to abandon the project.
“We should come up with solutions to help bring visitors to Port Townsend so they can come here and enjoy what we've created,” Nollette said.
Port commissioners scuttled the passenger ferry proposal and decided to return a $1.3 million federal grant provided for it after determining the venture was unlikely to turn a profit.
“It didn't pencil out,” said Deputy Port Director Jim Pivarnik, who recommended dropping the project.
“It took a lot of energy and cost, around $25,000 of staff time over the past two years on that,” Pivarnik said.
“We decided to stop the bleeding and let the feds have their grant money back.”
Factors in the cancellation included projections that a profit was unlikely using a boat that the port had considered acquiring and the information that the port would have to come up with $300,000 to match the federal funds.
The port was investigating the acquisition of the Spirit of Kingston, which is not in use after the Kingston passenger ferry was discontinued in September.
Even though it wouldn't have cost the port anything to acquire the Spirit, it wasn't right for Port Townsend, port officials decided.
Pete Hanke of Puget Sound Express, who was tapped as the operator of the ferry and who was involved in developing specifications for the boat, determined the boat would not turn a profit traveling to and from Seattle.
“The boat was too big, too slow, and it used a lot of fuel,” Pivarnik said.
“Pete said that if we were going to use it, he would no longer be interested in operating the route.”
The Spirit carried 150 passengers, while the port decided that the optimum passenger load for its own service was about one-third that amount: about 50.
The service was not geared to commuters. Rather, it would schedule one or two daily trips intended to bring tourists to Port Townsend.
To receive the grant, the port needed to put up $300,000 in matching funds, and port officials expected to be able to credit dock repair funds for this requirement.
Pivarnik learned last week from federal authorities that this was not acceptable, and he said he did not want to spend taxpayer funds to achieve the match.
“It was not the right time to invest local money in this,” he said.
The grant money has been placed into an escrow account and has not been used by the port.
The port has until August 2013 to use the funds but decided to return the money.
“I think there are some places on the East Coast that could use this money to rebuild their ferries,” Pivarnik said in reference to the destruction from superstorm Sandy.
The proposal had received a boost in August 2011 when it was the recipient of the federal Department of Transportation grant, earmarked for ferry purchase or construction.
The federal grant covered the cost of acquiring the ferry, but the port would be responsible for its operation.
In turn, the port transferred that responsibility to an independent operator, Hanke, so no taxpayer money was used to support the project.
Another boost came when the Port of Kingston closed its passenger ferry service in September and its boat, the Spirit of Kingston, became available, essentially for free since it had been purchased with grant money and would be available to the port.
Pivarnik said the port intended to contact the office of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Bothell, to thank her for her support of the project.
Pivarnik said he “has spent two years of my life on this” but that he was relieved about the decision.
“We've gone up and down about this for a while,” he said.
“We'd decide that it wasn't going to work, and then someone would tell us how great it was going to be, so we changed our minds,” he said.
“But we vetted the project and found that it wouldn't work without subsidies.”
This shouldn't necessarily have killed the project, according to City Council member and former Mayor Michelle Sandoval.
“There is no transit system in the world that I know of that isn't subsidized, including roads and bridges,” she said.
“A lot of people will be disappointed about this, and it's too bad because this has been such a long road.”
Sandoval said the passenger ferry could have provided easy access to the airport, with people taking the boat downtown and connecting to light rail.
“The port deserves a lot of thanks for doing their homework,” Nollette said.
“But we shouldn't drop this idea and should work on multimodal transportation solutions, using our imagination to find ways to get people here from land and from the water.”
Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.