Ferry critics seek more answers

OLYMPIA — A Whidbey Island lawmaker who asked why the state’s newest ferries list, vibrate and consume so much fuel isn’t satisfied with the answer she’s received from the leader of Washington State Ferries.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said the Aug. 17 response did not ease her concerns about the design and durability of the 64-car vessels and now she wants to meet with those running the ferry system.

“The answers in this letter are substantially inadequate,” Smith said Wednesday. “They simply do not match what I’ve learned from other professionals with intimate knowledge of the vessels and their challenges.”

Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, a vocal critic of the boats’ design, had a similar reaction to the letter and will be part of any future meeting.

He said “there are obvious problems” with the boats and the tone of the letter was “very defensive.”

David Moseley, the assistant secretary of transportation in charge of ferries, said he provided “truthful” answers and isn’t averse to a sit-down.

“We have a good class of boats that are serving our routes well,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “The proof is in the sailing, and these boats are sailing very well.”

Smith wrote Moseley on Aug. 1 with questions about the Salish and Kennewick, the two boats used on the Coupeville-Port Townsend route, and the Chetzemoka, which had served that run as well. Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, Gov. Chris Gregoire and State Auditor Brian Sonntag received copies of the letter, too.

Smith asked why the boats list when empty, shake during travel and use more fuel than the aging Steel Electric vessels they replaced. The state in 2007 ordered three ferries in the Steel Electric class, including two on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route, pulled from service when an investigation by The Herald found they were being used to carry passengers despite extensive corrosion and cracking in the 80-year-old hulls.

Smith also asked if the boats’ sleeker design is forcing cars to be loaded differently and terminal docks to be modified.

Smith contends the vibrating, over time, will damage the vessel and require pricey repairs. She figured the fuel use will also drive up costs in future years.

Moseley replied last week with a point-by-point response he described as “very direct and very straightforward.”

The three boats in the Kwa-di Tabil class are designed and operating as anticipated though fuel use is higher than planned, he said. While loading procedures are a little different, the on-time performance of the boats is not declining and ridership is up.

In the letter, he explained the list, which ranges from 0.5 percent to 2.0 percent depending on the amount of fuel and vehicle load, is intentional.

When Washington State Ferries sought a replacement for the Steel Electrics, it chose the design of an existing boat, the Island Home, which carries cars and passengers between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

The state hired Elliott Bay Design Group of Seattle, designers of the Island Home, to make modifications to his blueprint to enable the Washington version of the ferry to carry more oversize trucks and maneuver better in the rougher waters of Admiralty Inlet.

The basic configuration of the new boats is the same as the Island Home, he said. It does differ from the other vessels in the state ferry fleet in a significant way. The Salish and Kennewick have three stairwells and two elevators in one area known as a casing, or trunk, while the other boats in the state fleet are designed with two casings containing stairs and elevators.

“This design maximizes car deck space and allows for an increased number of over-height vehicles,” Moseley wrote, noting the fuel tanks are positioned on the new boats as a counterbalance to the weight of the casing.

“We do not anticipate correcting the list as it is an intended design feature, which is largely corrected when the vessel is fully loaded with vehicles and fuel and does not impact the serviceability of the vessels,” he wrote.

That answer stunned Smith.

“It is unthinkable that anyone would design a vessel with an intended list,” she said.

Seaquist agrees.

“That’s a bizarre claim,” said Seaquist, a former U.S. Navy warship captain. “I don’t know anyone who says they went out and designed a ship to list.”

As for the vibrations, port engineers rode the boats and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, Moseley said. Vessels routinely “vibrate during acceleration from the dock and during stopping particularly given the shallow water” but no long-term consequences are anticipated.

“I am sorry that you found some of the Salish movement unsettling on your recent travels, but it is not a reflection of the safety and integrity of the vessel nor its operability,” he wrote.

Smith is convinced the vibrations, like the list, are a result of design errors or decisions made by ferry officials. Correcting them will be costly and ferry riders could be forced to pay them, something she said she wants to prevent.

The two lawmakers think answers to some of their questions may emerge when the state auditor completes an audit of the ferry construction process. Seaquist said he believed the report could be released by the end of the year.

Moseley said cutting back on fuel use is a priority. The Salish and Kennewick consume an average of 98 gallons per hour compared with the average 64 gallons an hour of the old Steel Electric ferries.

Moseley said one reason is the new boats are powered by large engines that the state purchased several years ago for use in 144-vehicle vessels. The engines became available when the state decided to build three smaller ferries rather than bigger ones.

Seaquist cited the choice of engines and higher fuel use as some of the details lawmakers want to discuss further with ferry system leaders.

“Do we need to re-engine these boats or are they so expensive to operate that we need to sell them and start over?” he asked. “We are not seeing all of the data out of the state ferry system yet.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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