Leveled-out ferries save sizable amount of fuel

OLYMPIA — Fuel use on two of Washington’s newer ferries is down since the state poured tons of ballast into the 64-car vessels to prevent them from leaning when empty.

And it’s adding up to thousands of dollars in savings for Washington State Ferries, whose leaders for months resisted political and public pressure to level out the boats.

Vessels in the Kwa-di Tabil class used an average of 71.7 gallons per hour in the last six months of 2013. That’s down from 83.7 gallons per hour in the same period in 2012, according to figures from the Washington State Ferries.

The 14 percent drop over a six-month stretch worked out to approximately $233,000 in savings, according to Deputy Chief Jean Baker.

“I think over the life of the vessel we’re talking tens of millions of dollars potentially in savings,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton. “Is that significant? Absolutely.”

The figures for fuel use cover all three boats in the class — the Salish, the Kennewick and the Chetzemoka.

But officials attribute the bulk of the decline to the Salish and Kennewick, which each started burning less fuel immediately after getting weighted down with ballast last year to overcome a design feature that purposely caused them to list.

In April 2013, the state added 72.5 tons of granular steel shot to the Salish to erase its lean. Six months later, it did similar work on the Kennewick. Work on the Chetzemoka is slated this year.

Smith began in early 2012 pressing ferry officials to take steps to level the boats. Aside from the awkward way it looked, she questioned whether the boats vibrated more because of it, and therefore might not last as long.

For months, state ferries chief David Moseley resisted. He said there was no indication the boats vibrated more or would be less durable because of the design. Eventually he relented.

Once the work got under way Moseley said adding weight and pushing the propellers a couple of inches deeper into the water could improve fuel efficiency and operability of the vessels, which traverse the rough waters of Admiralty Inlet between Port Townsend and Coupeville.

“I thought it was possible. We’re pleased,” Moseley said. “I think the ballast work and the fact that the boats sit a little lower in the water is probably one of the contributing factors.”

Moseley declined to answer if the magnitude of the savings gives him pause about not doing the renovations earlier.

Smith was not reticent.

“Very early on in the operation of the vessels both the crew and the public expressed concerns,” she said. “Had those concerns been heeded sooner I think more savings and operational efficiencies could have been realized sooner.”

Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, who also pushed to add the ballast, said it’s worked out better than he anticipated.

The savings proves the boats should not have been built with a list in the first place. Part of the problem is ferry system staff helped design the class of boats and had too big a stake in it, he said.

He’s written legislation aimed at getting an independent party to oversee ferry construction contracts and reduce the role of ferry employees in designing boats. It passed the House and is awaiting consideration in the Senate.

“This is exactly the mistake of letting the ferry system do the in-house design that the bill is intended to prevent,” he said.

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

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