Routes approved, boats needed

They have route approval, now all they need is a boat to begin passenger-only ferry service from Oak Harbor to points south.

Last week, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commissioner approved three water routes requested by John Solin and Mike Lauver, owners of a new ferry business called Feet Wet.

One route allows Feet Wet’s proposed Saratoga Shuttle to carry passengers from Oak Harbor to Coupeville. The second allows service between Coupeville and Camano Island. The third is for a route from Oak Harbor to the Mukilteo ferry dock.

The owners see tourists as primary users of the Oak Harbor to Coupeville route, county employees as users of the Coupeville to Camano route, and business people and commuters using the Oak Harbor to Mukilteo route.

Construction is scheduled to begin soon in Mukilteo on a multi-modal transportation facility, from where people arriving in Mukilteo by ferry can hop a bus or a train.

Solin and Lauver, both former Navy men, got the name of their new company from what Navy pilots say when they’re safely on their way back to the aircraft carrier from a mission over land: “Feet wet.”

The owners of Feet Wet are new to the idea of carrying passengers across water, but they’ve been doing the job on land for several years. They started the Whidbey Sea-Tac Shuttle service, which has proved popular with islanders heading to the airport. They’ve gone from two to five vans, from eight to 12 daily trips to the airport, and added a charter business. Now they’re hoping to hit the water with Saratoga Shuttle.

The Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) was inundated by letters of support for Feet Wet before making its decision. City of Oak Harbor, Town of Coupeville, Island Transit and other local agencies, as well as elected representatives and chambers of commerce, supported the passenger-only ferry service in writing.

The UTC, headed by Mark Sidran, issued a “certificate of public convenience and necessity,” for all three proposed routes, although it still must approve tariffs, timetables and other matters before service can begin.

“There is a substantial need for the proposed passenger-only ferry service between points on Whidbey Island, Camano Island and Mukilteo, and a desire by the public for such service,” the UTC stated in its order. Financially, it determined that Feet Wet has the resources to provide such service “for at least 12 months.”

Now is not the time for people to rush to the waterfront and wait anxiously for a Saratoga Shuttle to arrive. If service begins at all, it will likely take about two years. The initial UTC route approval is good for 20 months.

There has been talk for many years at the local, state and even federal level of initiating a passenger-only ferry service in Saratoga Passage. Trial runs were made in the ‘90s by a company called Mosquito Fleet, but regular service was never scheduled.

Solin and Lauver sat in on a number of the meetings themselves, but the end result was always the same, Lauver said: “Let’s have another study.”

Frustrated, the two decided to forge ahead by creating a company and going to the UTC for route approval.

“If things are going to get going, private industry has to lead the way,” Lauver said.

Feet Wet may lead, but the owners admit they won’t go far without help from the public sector. “We strongly encourage a private-public partnership,” Solin said.

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen is on board with that idea. “Good job, gentlemen,” she told Lauver and Solin in a brief meeting on the waterfront this week. “You’re moving in the right direction, but we’ve got to sit down and figure out the role of the city in terms of a partnership. The city is willing to assume a very active role.”

The mayor has long voiced support for passenger-only ferry service, and the city has used the idea to attract some federal dollars for the new pier it plans to build. She expressed satisfaction that finally “a local business is set up to to explore the viability” of the concept.

Island Transit Director Martha Rose is also supportive of Feet Wet’s plans for a Saratoga Shuttle.

“I think they’ve got a great plan,” Rose said. “Wherever they get that boat we’ll meet them.” She said Lauver and Solin have a sensible plan, starting with small boats and short routes and building it up from there.

“They have a strong community base and really have their hearts in it,” Rose said. “It would be great for our area.” With a long history of obtaining grants for Island Transit, Rose said she would be happy to help Feet Wet try to obtain a grant to purchase boats.

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