Could hovercraft become new island ferry fleet?

"The ferry fleet that once stitched Whidbey's waterfront towns together could return someday, riding on a cushion of air.That's what what the non-profit Whidbey Island Transportation Association is hoping to accomplish, anyway.It's time for hovercraft on Whidbey Island, according to Roger Scott, who has been researching the idea for several months. It'll be a mosquito fleet that really works, said Scott. He would like to see the WITA operate the hovercraft, with purchase funds from a variety of sources.Hovercraft ride on a cushion of air and easily cruise over water and land. You don't need expensive docks or passenger boarding facilities. Hovercraft can stop on top of any of the many boat ramps in Puget Sound, or even navigate up the beaches. Any boat ramp or beach will do, Scott said. They'll go up a steep incline - any beach on the sound.WITA has tracked down a hovercraft manufacturer, Griffon Hovercraft Limited, headquartered in Southampton, England. Hopes are to license the manufacturing to a U.S. firm, preferably Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland. Nichols has expressed interest, Scott said. I'd like to see something built right here on the sound, preferably Whidbey Island.In addition, WITA has contracted with Hornblower, Inc., a marine operations management company headquartered in San Francisco. We've employed them to come up with a management system, Scott said. We'd start with a few (hovercraft) but we'd like to help other Puget Sound areas.WITA sees the hovercraft as the answer to many of the problems faced by commuters on Puget Sound's islands. They're like taxi cabs, Scott said, able to pick up commuters anywhere. They don't need expensive docks, and they leave little wake - possibly eliminating a common complaint of waterfront homeowners, some of whom sued the state to stop passenger ferry service in Rich Passage.Hovercraft water taxis could join Whidbey and Camano islands by water and bring island commuters to Everett, Mukilteo and Seattle.Financing is a big problem, but I think we can get over that, Scott told a group at a meeting in Clinton last week. A 12-passenger hovercraft would cost about $75,000 while larger models range up to $1.5 million. They're about the same price ranges as conventional boats, he said.Martha Rose, Island Transit director, offered moral support, although her own agency is depending on voter approval of a tax increase in May just to keep buses operating at current levels.When I hear the term 'passenger-only' I get excited, Rose said, envisioning hovercraft linking all of Whidbey Island. We've got to get the north and south together.''"

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