An ambitious plan from a Seattle-area real estate developer to build and operate a network of high-tech water taxis, ferrying passengers between its Southport megaproject in Renton, Wash., and the region’s top tech hubs, is getting closer to reality.
Seco Development first publicly acknowledged plans for a passenger-only water taxi service on Lake Washington a year ago, though it had already been talking to government entities and stakeholders for months at that point. Since then, the team has refined the plan, selected a manufacturing partner and is getting close to finalizing boat designs, all with a goal of bringing the service online by 2020.
Seco is working with All American Marine Inc. of Bellingham, Wash. and its partner Teknicraft Design to design and manufacture the boats. By the end of the month, engineering company KPFF will wrap up a study looking at operational costs, fare prices, routes and times, how to work with stakeholders going forward and other important aspects of the project.
Bottom line, Seco says it is serious about making this vision happen. And it doesn’t envision the water taxi as a direct boost to its bottom line.
“We are not in this to make money,” said Rocale Timmons, Seco’s senior vice president of planning and development. “We are not a marine transportation company; we are a real estate development company. We are initiating this service as a catalyst for a public transportation mode that makes sense for the entire region, not to make money off it.”
That said, Seco could reap huge benefits should this water taxi plan come to fruition. It is hunting for a major tech tenant for a triumvirate of office towers under construction that total 712,000 square feet as part of the massive Southport project that also includes the completed Hyatt Regency Lake Washington hotel and a couple apartment buildings.
[Editor’s Note: Seco is the underwriting sponsor of this kickoff of the GeekWire on the Road series in Renton. Specific news coverage decisions are made independently by GeekWire’s editorial team, without involvement or influence from GeekWire’s business team or sponsors.]
Despite Renton’s resurgence in recent years, and the presence of a significant employer in Boeing, the city hasn’t yet found itself on the radar of big tech. But Seco hopes that a direct line between the region’s other tech hubs, dense residential areas and Southport could be the final enticement to get a big company to scoop up the project’s scads of office space.
Like many parts of the region, Renton can often become a traffic nightmare. Southport is just off Interstate 405, and it is near several Boeing buildings, as well as The Landing, a massive shopping complex.
The water taxi is meant to provide some traffic relief. In addition to traffic improvements on the roads coming into the Southport complex, Seco is pushing a potential future ramp on I-405 and a new transit station nearby to alleviate the crush of cars at rush hour.
Initially, the plan for the water taxi is for a pilot route between Renton and South Lake Union, the neighborhood that is home to tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook. Future expansions could include stops at the University of Washington and hotspots on the east side of Lake Washington such as Bellevue and Kirkland.
With the pilot route, the plan for now is to have three boats — two running back and forth between Renton and Seattle and a third on standby. Seco wants to start with three trips during morning and evening commute hours as well as one midday trip, another later in the evening and a few on weekends. The trips would take 45 to 57 minutes, Timmons said, which is longer than the typical driving commute between Seattle and Renton but free of the threat of traffic jams.
The 90-foot catamaran boats would hold 149 passengers in the first floor hull, with room for bikes, according to blueprints for the vessels. The boats could have more capacity, but Seco wants to use the second floor hull as a flexible gathering space that CEO Michael Christ called the “think tank.”
Tech commuters are top of mind for this project, as the boats have additional work stations and areas for presentations. Seco wants to equip the boats with powerful Wi-Fi, sound systems and displays.
Timmons envisions a system where companies could reserve blocks of seats for workers, and individuals would pick spots in advance via an app in addition to walkup availability. Ideally, Timmons says, the water taxi fares could be paid for through ORCA Cards, the regional passes that work with busses, ferries, trains and other forms of public transit run by various agencies.
These big plans are going to require some serious cash. Seco wants to keep the fares low — somewhere around $7 or $8. The company has been talking with potential partners, including government agencies and big employers, which could come in handy should revenue fall short of operating costs.
“My goal is to try to have ticketing prices as reasonable as possible,” Christ said. “I’d like it to cost less than an hour of parking in the city. That really depends on what alliances we create, and it’s also predicated on ridership.”
The company wants to keep its boat budget around $5 million for each vessel, not counting operations and maintenance costs. Cost of operating the service remains a question mark for Seco, but the KPFF report due at the end of the month should shed light on that.
As of now, Seco is funding the entire project on its own. Seco wants to find partners to take on some of the burden, but getting boats on the water by 2020 is the higher priority.
“Because of Michael’s timeline, he is willing to catalyze the service by putting his own dollars on the line and then work out partnerships as the service gets closer and closer,” Timmons said. “We think it’s a regional solution, so ideally folks will participate. It’s a lot cheaper than building light rail or road infrastructure. The lake is free right-of-way.”
Seco’s project is reminiscent of the “Mosquito Fleet,” an armada of steam ships that ferried people and resources around the region for decades back in the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. Government authorities have explored bringing back a “foot ferry” system several times in recent years, but it had never come to pass.
Seco certainly has some hurdles to clear on this project. But one thing the company likely won’t have to worry about is a lot of red tape surrounding permits.
Timmons, a former senior planner with the city of Renton before joining Seco in 2016, said the company needs a permit from the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to operate, and it will apply for that around the end of this year.
Permitting a new landing dock in South Lake Union would be a big challenge, but Seco is hoping to work out an agreement with the city of Seattle to use Lake Union Park, which already has the infrastructure for boat landings.
As it goes through the planning process, Seco has leaned on an advisory board that includes Senior Deputy King County Executive Fred Jarrett; Michael McQuaid, former board member of the South Lake Union Community Council who also worked for Amazon in the past; Shiv Batra of the Washington State Transportation Commission; and Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Academy, a non-profit that advocates for unified transportation and education initiatives in the Pacific Northwest.
Despite having several major unanswered questions and plenty of planning still to go, Seco executives say they’ll do everything possible to meet that 2020 goal. That’s because, according to Christ, “time kills good ideas.”