Can WSF spare a new ferry?

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Scott St. Clair, a freelance writer on contract with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, takes Washington State Ferries and the Washington State Department of Transportation to task for not building new vessels.

When it comes to building new boats, Washington State Ferries and its parent agency, the Washington State Department of Transportation, might as well adopt that old Depression-era song, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

Despite years of expressed need, sometimes bordering on panic, and promises from both the Legislature and WSF to build them, the list of new boats is as empty as a beggar’s tin cup.

It’s been almost 10 years since ferry patrons had a spin on a new one.

According to Ferry Fleet Guide, a brochure published by WSDOT, the three newest boats in the WSF fleet are the 202-car Jumbo Mark II Class ferries, Tacoma (1997), Wenatchee (1998), and Puyallup (1999).

We were wearing polyester leisure suits and disco dancing to the Bee Gees when the six Issaquah Class ferries were built between 1979 and 1982.

For construction dates of others in the fleet, you have to go pretty far back in time — back to the days of black-and-white TV.

Since the Puyallup, new ferries have been promised — legislation in both 2001 and 2003 called for them — without any being delivered so often that it’s become a stuck record.

Let’s not ask to be shown the money.

Who runs this show? The spare-change guy who’s a fixture on the Interstate 5 northbound off-ramp at NE 45th Street couldn’t do any worse.

At least he honestly admits the cash you give him will be spent on beer and smokes.

WSF acknowledges the need to get cracking on new boats. From its Web site (http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/

Projects/Ferries/NewVessel/): “Currently, there are 24 auto-passenger ferries in the WSF fleet. Many of these ferries are old and nearing the end of their expected service life. Four 80-year-old ferries that served the Port Townsend / Keystone and San Juan Islands routes were retired in November 2007.

Of the remaining ferries, nine are between 40 and 60 years old — these nine ferries must also be replaced in the next 20 years.”

While WSF claims to be on track to build five new ferries in the next four years (two 64-car Island Home-

class and three 144-car boats), the jury is out on that time-table, with some contending it’s rose-colored glasses overly optimistic.

And the state’s ability to pay for the boats is in doubt since looming disparities between expected revenue and its appetite for spending increasingly redden, while costs (labor, materials, more expensive regulatory compliance) to build them go up, up, up every day.

One inside-WSF wag went so far as to say that the money for new 144-car boats will run out at just over

one and one-half boats, not the three promised by WSF.

Which half will we then get? Upper or lower? Can’t say bow or stern since they’re all double-enders.

After passage of the Nickel Package gas tax increase in 2003, WSF swore up and down that new ferries were a-comin’ even to the extent of promising one by March 2009.

Problem is Ferries also promised that the first new one would be on the water in December 2007 and the second by August of this year—the March 2009 boat was to be No. 3 with the fourth to be launched in June 2013.

So far, nada in the Nickel Package new boat department. Good thing our pal at the 45th Street off ramp wasn’t waiting for one of these ships to come in.

As it stands today, WSF is promising the first new Island Home boat by spring 2010 with the second late in 2010.

New 144-car boats won’t appear until well over three years from now, with the first theoretically set for winter/spring 2011, the second fall 2011, and the third spring 2012.

Is there a check in the mail for them? The state has promised new boats nigh onto forever, but they never appear.

Why should anyone expect anything different now?

Pretty much the same bunch is in charge in the Legislature in Olympia. They orate, fulminate and berate, then hike taxes and pass a few laws demanding

boats be built all the while posing for cameras and sending out junk mail to constituents bragging about their accomplishments.

Net, net, net change, however, is only higher taxes, money wasted in the bureaucratic shuffling of papers and spinning of wheels.

But no new ferries get built.

Don’t think apparatchiks in WSF aren’t watching this knowing full well that collectively Olympia is an empty suit with nothing but talk, talk, talk. In the meantime, the mice have plenty of room, time and money to play since the cat is far, far away...and sleeping to boot.

In other words, it’s business as usual.

New ferries? As for me and mine, we’ll believe it when we see it.

But I won’t hold my breath.

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