Waterways such as Puget Sound and Lake Washington served as the first major transportation routes in the King County area. Starting in the mid-1800’s, the Mosquito Fleet was a network of privately-owned and operated vessels that “buzzed” about Puget Sound and Lake Washington, carrying passengers, goods and the mail to locations long before the arrival of the automobile. When the car did arrive to the Northwest, ferries shifted attention to focus on accommodating this new, popular mode of transportation, and passenger-only ferries fell out of favor. The Mosquito Fleet dissolved sometime in the mid-1900’s.
In the 1990s, people began to reconsider the need for passenger-only ferry service. In 1993, the Washington State Ferry System produced a passenger-only implementation plan calling for expanded passenger-only ferry service in Puget Sound. A few years later (1998), Referendum 49 provided state funding for expansion of the state's passenger-only ferry fleet. In 1999, however, Initiative 695 reduced state funding sources for passenger-only ferry service provided for in Referendum 49. In 2003, the state legislature agreed to continue operating some passenger-only service but also made statutory changes to facilitate passenger-only service by transit agencies and county ferry districts. A few years later, the legislature established the Passenger-Only Ferry Task Force to study the most reliable and cost-effective means of providing passenger-only ferry service. This task force found that passenger-only ferry service is an important component of state, regional and local transportation infrastructure but is not sustainable without public subsidies.
As part of the 2004 update to the six-year transit development plan, King County examined the potential for waterborne transit. The county had already experienced success operating a seasonal water taxi across Elliott Bay since 1997. (In 2007, the water taxi provided more than 161,000 passenger trips.) Promising ridership markets were identified on Elliott Bay between West Seattle and downtown, on Lake Washington between Kirkland and the University of Washington and from Vashon Island to downtown Seattle.
The ferry district increases transportation options for King County communities. Passenger ferries can play an important role in helping to relieve traffic congestion while reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. When portions of I-5 in south Seattle were closed for major construction in the summer of 2007 and when a major accident closed the West Seattle Bridge that same year, the Elliot Bay Water Taxi became the alternative transportation route for citizens. Ridership soared and transportation officials quickly adapted to provide added service in response to the need.
When major construction begins on the Alaskan Way Viaduct waterborne transit will provide a valuable travel alternative to thousands of passengers. Passenger ferries can also promote economic development and provide tourism opportunities. Finally, passenger ferries have served major roles in disaster relief. Immediately following 9/11, passenger ferries played a critical role in the evacuation of the downtown Manhattan area. They continued to move commuters to and from Manhattan until the subway was repaired and service restored.
On April 30, 2007, The Metropolitan King County Council created the King County Ferry District to expand transportation options for county residents by enabling potential operation of passenger-only ferry service to various parts of the county. All nine members of the Council sit as the District's Board of Supervisors.