SEATTLE — When the ferry Hiyu went into an area shipyard for maintenance and repairs in December, engineering crews knew the hull of the 41-year-old boat likely would need work.
They weren’t prepared for the corrosion they found.
A state worker rapping with his hammer punched a hole through a rusted area on the steel hull, ferry officials said last week.
“It was troubling. We found more than we knew about or expected to see,” said Tim Browning, senior port engineer in charge of vessel preservation for the ferry system. “There is a significant amount of steel that was bad.”
The state now expects to spend about $500,000, and at least another month, making repairs before the vessel can be safely returned to service.
Problems similar to the Hiyu’s are turning up elsewhere in the fleet. That’s prompting state lawmakers and others to scrutinize how ferry workers go about the dirty drudgery of crawling about in bilges looking for scaling paint and signs of rust.
Making certain the state’s ferries are being adequately maintained and preserved is a key goal of a systemwide overhaul ordered by state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.
She also has made a priority out of paying for that necessary work at a time of tighter budgets and increased demands, said Steve Reinmuth, Hammond’s chief of staff and acting director of the ferry system.
“For years we’ve been faced with maintenance and preservation needs and haven’t had the money to fund them,” Reinmuth told the state Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday.
The Hiyu for years hadn’t been high on the ferry system’s list for maintenance and preservation. The open-decked ferry, capable of carrying just 34 cars, was considered to be too small for most runs. It spent much of the last decade in deep reserve, tied up to a dock, going nowhere.
That changed in June when problems on other aging ferries in the state’s fleet pressed the Hiyu back into carrying people, cars and freight between communities in the San Juan Islands.
Questions about the integrity of ferry hulls have been building for months, especially since November, when Hammond ordered the 80-year-old Steel Electric-class vessels out of service. Deep inspection on the Quinault found cracks and corrosion had rendered 45 percent of the hull in need of immediate replacement. Similar expensive problems were suspected on the ferry’s sister ships, the Klickitat, Illahee and Nisqually. Hammond ordered all of the Steel Electrics retired.
The Coast Guard now is demanding stepped-up inspection and maintenance on the rest of the ferry fleet. Four of the oldest ferries still in service are under orders to receive emergency hull repairs by April. Another five boats are scheduled for dry dock examinations. The unprecedented repair work already has touched off service disruptions, and more are expected in the coming months.
Lawmakers are getting hammered with complaints from communities that either have lost their ferries or are making do with less.
Tempers are boiling.
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who heads the senate Transportation Committee, blasted ferry officials Thursday during a hearing in Olympia.
Recent events have left her with a “real dim view” of experts from the state and Coast Guard, who for years had assured her the fleet was safe.
It is clear, Haugen added, that ferry crews have been making do, keeping old boats on the water well past their prime. But “you are making do with people’s lives,” she said.
The problems have left lawmakers skeptical about the ferry system, Haugen told Reinmuth.
“You have got to gain our trust again because some of us have some real concerns,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the future, but I’ve got to tell you that I have a bad taste in my mouth from the past.”
State engineers are embracing advice from the Cedar River Group, the consultants state lawmakers hired last year to conduct a detailed review of the ferry system.
At least on paper, the state plans to use each of its ferries for 60 years. That’s a longer life cycle than embraced by other ferry systems, the military and commercial shippers, said Kathy Scanlan, one of the managing partners of the Cedar River Group.
The age of the fleet requires the ferry system to step up its programs for inspecting and preserving the hulls, Scanlan told lawmakers last week. Greater attention must be paid to maintaining the protective coating inside the hulls, particularly in bilges where water can collect, she said. The ferry system also needs to make greater use of special equipment to gauge the thickness of hull steel between dry dock repairs, the consultant added.
Ferry crews already are putting those ideas into practice, said Paul Brodeur, director of vessel maintenance and preservation for the ferry system. As part of recent repair work under way on the Hyak, the crews took on the difficult task of painting inside engine rooms and bilges.
“This is a priority given recent events (with) the Steel Electrics, knowing that as these boats age, they can rot from the inside out,” Brodeur said.
If there is a bright spot in the discovery of new problems, it is that they appear to be more localized than was the case on the Quinault. For example, on the Hiyu, about 10 percent of the hull was corroded and in need of repair, Browning said. Part of that problem was traced to an undetected leak in the engine cooling system, not the ravages of saltwater.
Cedar River Group also has advised the ferry system to abandon its strategy of raising money to build new boats by cutting back on preservation for older vessels still in service.
Reinmuth said the ferry system looks forward to working with lawmakers in deciding how to pay for the work that must be done to keep the fleet afloat.
“The need is clearly there,” he said.
Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.