Lack of ferry service biggest concern

PORT TOWNSEND – Riding the 80-year-old ferries between Port Townsend and Keystone on Whidbey Island every day is like living in a third-world country, where risks are present but accepted, said Kirsten Harma, who commutes to her job on Whidbey Island every day.

“I just figure there are a couple of lifeboats,” Harma said.

A group of regular ferry riders sometimes discuss the safety of the four Steel Electric-class ferries used on the Port Townsend-Keystone route when there are delays, or when the ferries are shuffled around because of issues with one, she said.

But the utmost worry is not over the safety of the ferries.

“My main concern is that Washington State Ferries won’t continue to support the [Port Townsend-Keystone] route,” Harma said.

Jason Planque of Freeland on Whidbey Island regularly rides the ferry to Port Townsend.

He said ferry issues amount to a startling equation:

“This is one of the longest runs in the [Puget] Sound, and it’s one of the most treacherous runs, and they’re the oldest ferries,” Planque said.

“This is just kind of pitiful, the condition [of the ferries] we got here compared to everybody else.”

But he added, “It’s just part of life. That’s what you get for living on an island, I guess.”

Mayor concerned

Like ferry-rider Harma, Port Townsend officials are more concerned about the keeping the route than they are about possible dangers of the vessels.

“It’s an important link for the communities,” said Port Townsend Mayor Mark Welch.

“If the state abandoned that route, I would hope a private company takes it over.”

Welch has put his confidence in the Coast Guard’s assessment of the condition of the ferries – but still has some safety concerns.

“Obviously, they’re getting a little long in the tooth,” Welch said.

“So clearly they’re not as safe – in terms of certain hazards – as the new boats.

“Obviously we want to get them replaced with something more contemporary.”

But he said he’s not worried about residents of Port Townsend and others riding the ferries.

Only ferries that fit

The four Steel Electric-class ferries – the Klickitat, Quinault, Illahee and Nisqually, the nation’s oldest ferries in operation on salt water – are used to shuttle passengers between Port Townsend and Keystone, and are also used in the San Juans.

The four Steel Electrics, built in 1927, are the only boats in the state’s 28-vessel fleet capable of using the Port Townsend and Keystone terminals.

They leak and suffer from corrosion problems – and none of them meets federal safety requirements in effect since the mid-1950s.

State Ferries officials say they are not considering eliminating the route.

Their attention instead is focused on trying to comply with tighter maintenance and inspection regulations recently ordered by the Coast Guard, which is the agency responsible for certifying the vessels as seaworthy.

A study to determine alternatives to using the 1927-vintage ferries, so they can be retired, is expected to be completed by January.

The deadline for the study’s completion was pushed up a year as a result of increased public attention to concerns about safety of the ferries.

The state is also negotiating with shipbuilders to construct four new 144-car ferries, more than twice the size of the old Steel Electrics.

Ferry officials are hopeful the new boats will allow them to retire two of the Steel Electrics sometime after 2009.

But the new, larger boats won’t replace the Steel Electrics on the Port Townsend-Keystone run because they won’t fit in the docks at those terminals.

The state’s plans to extend the Port Townsend terminal into Port Townsend Bay and increase ferry size to handle more vehicles were put on hold last fall after city officials said they are worried about additional traffic around the ferry landing that would block the downtown area.

The state had spent six years and about $5.5 million studying what to do with the Port Townsend-Keystone route.

In June, Washington State Ferries officials said they wanted to resume their studies.

They said the new plans would include more emphasis on community impact – and new ferries about the size of the Steel Electrics, which hold 65 vehicles.

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