Small car ferry gets high marks

SEATTLE — The car ferry designed to serve travelers between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend received a rousing and largely unchallenged endorsement from a state-hired maritime consultant Tuesday.

John Boylston of Cedar River Group steered through waves of concerns about the capabilities of the Island Home vessel, telling state legislators it “represents the least-risk alternative” to replacing the Steel Electric class vessels pulled from the route last year.

Boylston said even with a flurry of design modifications pushed by Washington State Ferries, the 64-car Island Home is “entirely appropriate” for the route and will be the lightest, most fuel-efficient craft in the fleet.

His six-page report and oral presentation to the Joint Transportation Commission sought to quell criticism from a few in the Legislature and the maritime industry that this is not the best vessel to be the state’s heir apparent to the Steel Electrics.

“I thought it answered a lot of the questions raised and it certainly raised my level of confidence it is the right decision,” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, one of nine lawmakers present Tuesday.

“We are building the Island Home. It is going to serve the community for the future,” said Haugen, who is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee and plays a leading role in writing the ferries’ annual budget.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, attended Tuesday to hear discussion of her concerns on the vessel’s size, shape and ability to traverse the rough waters of Admiralty Inlet then maneuver safely into the two ports.

“I think he answered some,” she said. “I think the Island Home is a reasonable boat we can deliver. Is it the best boat with the newest technology? That is the question.”

For years, state lawmakers knew they needed to retire and replace the Steel Electrics, the oldest ferries operating in salt water in the nation. In places their hulls still featured the riveted steel plates they were launched with in 1927.

Since 2001, laws have been passed and money allocated for replacement boats but there was no agreement on what to build.

In November, Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond shelved all four of the aging vessels amid new reports of worsening decay, turning an urgent situation into an emergency. The four old ferries are scheduled to go on sale on eBay July 16.

The state started leasing a 54-car Steilacoom II-class ferry from Pierce County to serve the Port Townsend-Keystone Route, and the Legislature approved $84 million to build at least two boats of the same design.

But construction bids came in much higher than the state expected. And community leaders, ferry riders and politicians said they didn’t want the small boat anyway, so the state shifted focus to the Island Home.

The state hopes to award a contract in October and have the first boat delivered in April 2010.

Smith continues to be concerned the proposed propulsion system, described by Boylston as “antiquated,” is not good enough.

The Island Home will be using a system that is very similar in design to that of the Steel Electrics, but with more powerful engines.

Captains will need to pilot the new boats like the old, and riders know well what that means.

Ferries will approach the channel leading to the harbors at an angle and with enough speed to overcome cross currents. With less than 1,000 feet from the mouth of the channel to the dock, the ferries must be powered down and engines thrown in reverse to stop.

Boylston contended the Island Home will have greater maneuverability than it might with a newer computer-guided and generator-powered propulsion system.

Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, a retired U.S. Navy captain, disputed his conclusion in the meeting.

He said the U.S. Navy has not used this fixed propulsion system in 40 years. Given the life expectancy of the Island Home is 60 years, that means when it comes out of service it will be using 100-year-old technology, he said.

Seaquist said he could “not accept” Boylston’s judgment that no better alternative existed, though he understood the state is too far along in the process to retreat from the proposed design.

“In the long run, this is a very inefficient propulsion system,” he said.

Haugen offered a quick retort.

“I want the captain in charge of that boat, not computers,” she said. “That’s my people riding on those boats.”

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