State needs to start replacing ancient ferries

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It caused big problems for holiday travelers, but Paula Hammond, Washington’s new Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT), did the right thing when she pulled the four Steel Electric class ferries out of service the day before Thanksgiving.

The problem: Cracks and corrosion in the hulls.

The troubles surfaced last March when a 6-inch crack was discovered in the hull of the Klickitat. Two months later, a hole was found in the Quinault, then another hole was discovered in the Illahee.

Later, inspectors found evidence of extreme pitting in the Quinault hull when the vessel was in dry dock at Todd Shipyards.

That was the last straw, and Hammond docked all four.

The four ferries were built in 1927, the same year Charles Lindberg flew non-stop across the Atlantic. The Steel Electrics are most noted for transporting people, cars and trucks from Port Townsend to the Keystone Landing on Whidbey Island.

The Port Townsend-Keystone crossing is particularly tricky because it runs perpendicular to large cargo and cruise ships heading to and from Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Bellingham, Olympia and Vancouver, BC.

The four ferries are the economic lifeline of the Olympic Peninsula and islands.

The state is searching for $160 million to replace the boats, but so far, there is no money.

The Legislature did set aside $347 million to build four new 144-car ferries, but those boats are too big for the Port Townsend run.

The Keystone Harbor channel is narrow and shallow. During foul weather and low tides, runs on that route are often canceled. Newer boats would navigate that channel more safely and would eliminate the need for DOT to move the dock to another location on Whidbey Island.

The fact that the four 80-year old boats are showing dangerous signs of aging is not surprising. DOT and lawmakers have known for years the ferries need replacing, but finding money to build new modern vessels is a challenge, especially when our transportation needs are so great, the costs are skyrocketing, and fuel taxes and fares aren’t keeping pace.

Lawmakers and DOT need to look at all options. Some have been around for awhile, while others are just surfacing.

For example, under a proposal put together about a decade ago by long-time Tacoma shipbuilder J.M. Martinac, the state’s ferry system could have four new 130-car, 1,200-passenger ferries.

Martinac developed a design and engineering proposal for four “Island Class” ferries capable of safely navigating the Keystone Channel under any weather condition. Martinac even proposed delivering the first boat in 2004.

To get around the funding issue, Martinac and its partners originally wanted to lease the ferries to the state and then turn over ownership in 15 years.

According to Martinac, their proposal would save Washington taxpayers $200 million — $80 million in construction costs, another $80 million in financing, and $40 million in lower maintenance costs.

A second proposal comes from Matt Nichols, CEO of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. He wants the state to consider purchasing a ferry similar to the one his company just built for Pierce County. That boat crosses shipping channels from Steilacoom heading for McNeil and Anderson Islands.

Nichols said a ferry could be built in a year for about $20 million.

Washington has at least three shipyards capable of building replacement vessels for the Steel Electrics.

Whether it’s Todd Shipyards, Martinac, Nichols Brothers or a new venture, Gov. Gregoire, DOT and the Legislature should seek their input on ways to creatively bring new ferries online as soon as possible.

Besides, as our economy shows signs of weakening, shipyards, their workers and suppliers would welcome the business.

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