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A fast ferry between Tacoma and Seattle? It could happen

The Tacoma city council has passed a resolution to study a passenger ferry

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It’s not unusual for Tacoma-area residents to commute northward. But a commute between Tacoma and Seattle can take two hours during rush hour traffic—which also snarls buses and other road options. The Sounder train is an option, but it takes an hour and trips are limited.

“I come to seattle fairly regularly for work,” Tacoma city councilor Ryan Mello told Curbed Seattle. “It’s easily 90 minutes on a good day, if it’s not raining or there’s not a stall or something flipped over or caught on fire.”

Mello has another idea: Skip traffic via Puget Sound. He’s proposed starting fast foot ferry service between Seattle and Tacoma, similar to the Kitsap County-run foot ferry that currently runs between Seattle and Bremerton.

The Tacoma City Council passed a resolution Tuesday directs the Tacoma city manager to get started on the project—but the boat itself could be a ways away.

Still, Mello, who proposed the idea, is working to make it happen.

“I’m doing my role of trying to collect partners,” Mello told Curbed Seattle. That means reaching out to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the Port of Tacoma, the Puget Sound Regional Council, and other nearby cities. “There’s lots of regional interest.”

Washington State Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling said that the state can’t run passenger ferries (the legislature barred them in 2003), but he said local governments are welcome to run them—and ferries have moved north and south in the region before. “We certainly welcome solutions that help commuters move around the region,” said Sterling, “and we think water is a great way to do it.”

The project is still “very much in the discussion phase,” said Mello. “Before we get to feasibility we need to collect a couple of more partners, find the funding.”

The Seattle-to-Bremerton fast ferry trip travels about 17 miles in 28 minutes. While the trip to Tacoma from Seattle by car is more than 30 miles, by boat it’s more like 20.

Mello told us that it’s “way too early to tell” how long a Tacoma fast ferry would take, but it’s “one of the many questions that will get figured out in feasibility.”

The resolution passed Tuesday states an eagerness to expand transit options in Tacoma—and in the recitals, states a desire for Sound Transit to speed up expansion of the light rail system. But that doesn’t mean the idea with the ferry is to get ahead of anything.

“The fast foot ferry is another option to get around the region in a quickly growing region,” said Mello. “This is by no means a replacement of Sound Transit transportation options, such as Sounder commuter rail, express bus service, and light rail coming to Tacoma.”

The ferry is still years away, anyway. “We’re not going to get fast foot ferry launching in [the next year or two],” said Mello, “and then we have to figure out how to pay for it... I’m reminding people, yeah, it needs a subsidy, but everything requires a subsidy. Our roads require a subsidy. Our trains and buses require a subsidy. This is just a way to get around on water instead of on land.”

The advantage with the ferry is there’s no right-of-way to buy, said Mello. “There’s options to deliver this quicker and a little cheaper, but i don’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s right around the corner. I’m going to work hard, but there’s a lot of next steps and questions that gotta get answered.”

Now that the City Council is on board, next step for the ferry is to pitch the idea to the Pierce Transit board. Mello told us he’ll ask for a similar resolution “so the CEO has a sense [from] the board this is worth working on, at least in a planning/feasibility stage.”

Since news broke of the proposal last week, Mello told us the feedback has been overwhelming. “I’m getting very organic interest,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve worked on anything in my service this career that’s generated so much unsolicited feedback and excitement.”

Even people from Seattle are reaching out to him. “I normally don’t get that kind of communication in Tacoma.”

He’s expecting some negative feedback. “The cynics and critics say, ‘gosh, here you go again, keep exporting people from Tacoma and the South Sound to go work in Seattle. Why don’t you just create money in Tacoma?’” said Mello.

“I would emphasize that ferries, foot ferries, go both ways,” he continued. “It could bring visitors and workers to Tacoma just as easily... It shouldn’t be looked at as an export.”