Ferry solutions mired in blame

There are many theories to explain why Washington State Ferries has been unable to retire four leaking 80-year-old boats.

Some blame politics.

Some blame leadership.

Some blame poor planning.

So state officials have come up with an answer that they’ve turned to before.

They’ve ordered a study.

Longtime ferry system supporter State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said there’s something amiss in the ferry system.

It’s time for some “readjustments,” said Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

She’s convinced ferry officials are making replacement of the Steel Electrics difficult by relying on “ridiculous” financial projections and poor planning.

“You have to depend on the people who you pay a lot of money to make those decisions,” she said.

Her solution: a sweeping two-year study of the ferry system, including all 28 boats, the routes and its roughly $200 million-a-year budget.

Once that’s completed, lawmakers will have reliable information to figure out how best to finally retire the nation’s oldest ferries still running in salt water, Haugen said.

* * *

Ferry officials have ignored the communities they serve, Haugen said.

They’ve left lawmakers in the dark, she said, and pushed projects with no chance of success – including a plan to build an over-the-water parking lot that would have cost $54,000 a space to construct.

The ferry system’s problems have been glaring on the route between Keystone Harbor on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, she said.

There, the state has spent six years and $5.5 million exploring options. Its preferred plan was to rebuild ferry terminals on the run, allowing them to accommodate ferries carrying up to 144 cars.

Yet the state failed to appreciate community resistance to larger vessels, she said. It didn’t talk enough with residents on both sides of the run, where people in both towns were fearful of traffic jams caused by the bigger ships, she said.

“There’s no question. They never really talked to the communities,” Haugen said.

The plan for bigger ferries on that route was scrapped earlier this year, in part because bigger boats would need bigger terminals, and the cost was too high, Haugen said.

Only the Steel Electrics, which carry 64 cars, are small and agile enough to navigate Keystone Harbor.

For now, it appears the Steel Electrics will continue operating indefinitely until the Legislature finishes studying what to do with the ferry system, said Mike Anderson, the man at the helm of Washington State Ferries.

While that’s happening, the ferry service is taking another look at what to do with the Keystone-Port Townsend route.

Although the issues are the same as dealt with in previous studies, “very little of that work is throwaway,” Anderson said.

* * *

Gov. Chris Gregoire also is convinced ferry officials missed an opportunity.

Conversations with people on Whidbey Island and in Port Townsend might have steered the state toward building two large ferries and two smaller ferries, instead of pursuing four large vessels.

The smaller boats could have helped retire the Steel Electrics sooner and likely would have been welcomed on both sides of the route, she said.

“Why didn’t someone talk to them?” Gregoire asked rhetorically. “They didn’t check with their clients.”

State Auditor Brian Sonntag has frequently raised questions about the ferry system, particularly its handling of money.

In a March audit, he pointed out that the ferry system’s accounting methods are so limited it can’t prove it collected all the fees for ticket sales.

Although the ferry system said it is trying to fix the accounting problem, Sonntag pointed out in the audit that this is the 21st straight year the problem has been raised with ferry officials.

Sonntag fears something bad may have to happen first in order for state officials make meaningful changes.

“I really believe Olympia is so focused on problem solving in a crisis mode that until there’s a crisis it may not get enough people’s attention,” he said.

The paper trail on the Steel Electrics’ history of trouble could be costly in the aftermath of a disaster.

“It wouldn’t just be a matter of a smoking gun,” said Frank Shoicet, a Seattle attorney who’s successfully sued state and local governments in major personal-injury cases. “It would be the smoking gun dropped at the foot of somebody standing there with bloodstains and powder burns on their hands.”

* * *

Ferry officials don’t like to talk about the possibility of disaster.

They say their ferries are safe. Period.

Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said he’s not opposed to stepped-up review of the ferry service. However, he hopes all the studying leads to more than just finger-pointing.

The state needs to concentrate on building new boats, not on assigning blame, he said.

Lawmakers have sometimes stood in the way of progress, he said.

In 2001, politicians told the ferry system to build new boats. But they didn’t provide money to get it done.

They also left some critical questions unanswered, he said. The bill set out to shift risks for cost overruns to shipbuilders, but left unclear precisely how that should happen.

The legislation “laid out a Parcheesi board on which there was major difficulties to move your piece around the board,” MacDonald said. “We would try something and get blocked. Then we would try something else and get blocked.”

The ferry system’s planning for new boats also has left observers scratching their heads.

State officials first wanted to build 130-car ferries.

They spent $67 million buying engines for the new boats before detailed plans and construction contracts came together.

Then late last year, after half a decade of planning, ferry officials announced they’d changed their minds.

Now, they want 144-car ferries.

Nonetheless, ferry officials have tried to blame others for delays, including J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. of Tacoma.

They brought a federal lawsuit against ferry officials, alleging mishandling of ferry construction contracts.

Steve Reinmuth, government relations director for the transportation department, said he’s convinced that the Martinac litigation is the only reason the Steel Electrics haven’t been replaced.

The accusation doesn’t hold up.

Prior to filing its federal lawsuit in fall 2006, Martinac brought only one other legal challenge of the ferry system. In 2005, the shipbuilder challenged a decision by ferry officials to disqualify it from bidding on the new ferries project.

It took just four months for Martinac lawyers to convince a judge the ferry system’s conduct was illegal.

Martinac’s federal lawsuit is still pending even as state officials – at Gregoire’s insistence – are negotiating with Martinac to now play a role in developing new ferries.

Gregoire says she didn’t intervene earlier because she lacked the authority.

When she took office in January 2005, her role was constrained because the state Transportation Commission, not the governor, oversaw ferry operations.

That changed within months, with legislators deciding to give the governor authority over transportation policy.

Gregoire said she’s concentrating on building four new ferries – but not necessarily replacing the Steel Electrics.

If all goes according to state plans, in two years, one of those 144-car ferries will be built.

Then state policy-makers will have one more go at studies dealing with questions about how to retire ferries that have been floating around since the Calvin Coolidge administration.

“We don’t want to be celebrating the 100-year birthday of the Klickitat in 2027,” MacDonald said.

“I don’t think the Coast Guard would think that would be a good idea. They’d probably like to see it in a museum by then.”

Herald writers Jim Haley and Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

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

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