August 12, 1997 in City

Try Floating Into Downtown Seattle Commuters, Visitors Are Hopping Onto The Water Taxi

Lynda V. Mapes Staff writer

Deep in the heart of rush-hour traffic, at the foot of skyscrapers disgorging still more people headed for even more cars, there’s an escape hatch from the rat race: the Admiral Pete.

A spry little catamaran-hulled boat, the Admiral Pete is an alternative to that most pernicious of Seattle weeds, the automobile.

The boat is used by commuters and joyriders crossing the sparkling blue of Elliott Bay between downtown and West Seattle.

She’s a water taxi, launched as an experiment two months ago by a group of local government agencies in cooperation with a private cruise line that provided the boat.

The hope is that people will like the boat enough to get out of their cars. It’s a good gamble, considering the alternative. The West Seattle Bridge at rush hour is a tangled web of tractor-trailers, commuters and out of town tourists bumbling obliviously along.

Crossing the two-mile bridge can take half an hour. It’s four lanes of pure hassle, with a low lump of asphalt providing the only division between opposing lanes. Strips of metal between spans of pavement also give motorists a good solid jolt at regular intervals.

On game nights at the Kingdome, tie-ups on the bridge are even worse. Then there is the pleasure of finding a parking place downtown and paying for it.

Or there’s the Admiral Pete. Its riders, with their shades and sunhats, many with an iced latte or lemonade in hand as they board, hardly look the part of the beleaguered Seattle commuter.

“I love the water taxi. It’s so nice and soothing,” said Jackie Bergman, who uses it to get from her West Seattle home in Alki to her downtown job at Seafirst Bank.

A native of New Jersey, Bergman said she can hardly believe her commute is a quick slip across a sparkling bay, then a ride on a free shuttle bus 3-1/2 blocks to her home.

Outside the main cabin, other commuters kick back in deck chairs, watching the snow-capped Olympic Mountains crown the boat’s spreading wake.

Water taxis are common in some parts of the world, including Venice, Italy, where workhorse boats called vaporettos haul tourists and townspeople around for a nominal fee.

While there are pedestrian and car ferries serving the Seattle waterfront, none of them stops at other city piers. Instead they take commuters across Elliott Bay to Vashon and Bainbridge islands, or to Bremerton in Kitsap County.

Only the Admiral Pete offers a way to get around Seattle by water, and the idea appears to be catching on.

For Darren Walsh, taking the water taxi downtown for dinner alfresco with his family was a simple decision.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Walsh, a computer programmer.

After all, the trip costs $2 each way and takes about 8 minutes at a quick clip of about 20 knots. Getting to the same location by car from downtown can easily take three times as long, and parking can cost twice as much.

And on the freeway there’s no salt spray, no seagulls dipping and turning, and no fishing boats to watch as the taxi shears by. Since the demonstration project was launched June 28, about 18,000 people have ridden the boat, according to Cheryl Cronander of the city of Seattle.

It’s been an expensive experiment. An earlier boat used for the job, the General Chesty, cost about $80 an hour to operate, and easily covered operational costs with passenger fares.

But it also broke down so often a succession of other boats were pressed into service until the Admiral Pete was secured. She costs about $200 an hour, or an estimated $75,000 to run throughout the month of August.

Cruise dates had to be purchased from the private charter service that owns the boat to keep the Admiral Pete available to the public as a taxi.

The water taxi experiment will run until Sept. 1, or until the money runs out, Cronander said.

Ridership has continued to build and there’s talk of getting a federal grant to help pay for permanent service. Beki Blegen would like that.

“This is so much more relaxing than driving,” said Blegen, who uses the boat to get to her job at a downtown law firm. “It’s great. You can just sit here and drink your latte.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

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