Ferries’ ‘worst-case scenario’ comes true

SEATTLE — The emergency closure of the Keystone-to-Port Townsend ferry run because of concerns about the safety of leaking, 80-year-old ferries is a reality that state officials have been bracing for since at least the end of June.

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond’s decision to shut down the run Tuesday stunned many, particularly coming on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday rush.

But Washington State Ferries’ e-mails, public relations plans and other internal records show state officials all the way up to Gov. Chris Gregoire have spent months quietly preparing for a possible shutdown.

State ferries chief Mike Anderson four months ago wrote that the “worst-case scenario” for the ferry system would be to have Coast Guard inspectors order all four Steel Electric-class ferries pulled from service until expensive repairs could be made.

His June 27 e-mail to state transportation leaders suggested that could happen at any time, perhaps even as early as the Fourth of July weekend.

“This is likely to be prohibitively expensive and would be devastating to our customers and the Port Townsend and Keystone communities,” he wrote.

The Coast Guard didn’t stop the ferries. Neither did Doug MacDonald, the former transportation secretary.

It was Hammond — just a month into her new job — who ultimately decided the Klickitat, Quinault, Illahee and Nisqually needed to be pulled from the water for a closer look.

Since the start of this year, nearly $4 million has been spent on emergency repairs to the aging vessels.

What finally tipped the scale was word that ferry engineering crews believe extensive corrosion and pitting exists on the 1927-vintage riveted steel plates still found deep in ferries’ hulls along the keels.

Closing the route “is very unfortunate,” Hammond told reporters at a predawn press conference Wednesday on Seattle’s Coleman Dock. “I want to apologize to all the people who want to use that route.”

The run between Whidbey and Port Townsend had to be shut down because the Steel Electrics are the only vessels in the ferry fleet small and nimble enough to negotiate the narrow harbor at Keystone.

Gregoire was concerned enough about a potential route closure that on Aug. 2 she directed state ferry officials to find an “immediate alternative” to continued reliance on the aging boats.

One option she wanted explored was leasing a ferry from another country, a suggestion ferry officials determined wouldn’t work because federal law prohibits using foreign-flagged vessels as ferries.

On Wednesday, the governor told KIRO (710 AM), The Herald’s radio news partner, that finding a fix for the Steel Electrics will be a “top-safety priority” in the legislative session set to begin in January.

Hammond’s decision to pull the Steel Electrics was necessary in part “because the age of these things alone calls them into question,” Gregoire said.

“As inconvenient and unfortunate as this is, we have got to do everything we can to ensure safety,” the governor said. “Imagine if somebody was injured, or worse. You can’t just sit on the information. You have to take action.”

Gregoire said she has been meeting with state legislative leaders in recent weeks, talking about possible changes to contracts approved in the spring for building 144-car ferries.

Those vessels are too large to work at Keystone. Instead of sticking to that plan, the state would build a mix of vessels, including smaller ferries to replace the Steel Electrics, she said.

Tuesday’s decision to pull the Steel Electrics from service came in spite of an Oct. 30 report to the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee that described the Steel Electrics as “generally considered to be in good condition.”

That report followed months of assurances from MacDonald and other ferry system officials that the vessels are safe.

Ferry system documents, obtained under state public records laws, include detailed plans for responding to a number of scenarios involving the Steel Electrics, including options for emergency route closures if the vessels had to be tied up for safety concerns.

Until recently, ferry officials truly believed the vessels were safe to operate, although old, and in need of costly repairs and eventual replacement, said Marta Coursey, communications director for the ferry system.

“That gets at the heart of the matter that we have always faced and that is balancing safety with community need to keep those routes open,” she said. “We have to be uncompromising about safety.”

That message is featured prominently in the ferry system’s “communications plan” for managing problems with the Steel Electrics.

The six-page document, which has undergone multiple revisions as more problems on the vessels have surfaced, is marked for “internal review only” although it has been shared with state lawmakers and leaders in communities with heavy ferry use, Coursey said.

The Steel Electrics are the oldest ferries operating on salt water in the nation and haven’t met federal safety standards since the 1950s. At least one state lawmaker has questions about why they were pulled now.

“Why did they wait so long to decide they were unsafe and why did they choose the day before Thanksgiving for a community that pretty much relies on the ferries for getting in and out?” asked state Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, who serves on the House transportation committee.

“I hope they were not operating them unsafely knowingly,” she said. “I’m kind of curious how they got by that long if they were that unsafe.”

Herald reporters Yoshiaki Nohara and Lukas Velush contributed to this story.

Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or north@heraldnet.com.

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