New hulls could save old ferries, expert says

SEATTLE — Most of the state’s leaky and aging Steel Electric-class ferries could be salvaged if they are cut apart and given new hulls, according to a naval architect hired by Washington lawmakers.

The operation could save taxpayers money and bring the 80-year-old ferries up to current safety standards, the consultant said.

“The Steel Electrics represent your oldest vessels in what I assess as your most challenging run,” John Boylston, a shipbuilding and repair consultant, told legislators Tuesday. Replacing them is a critical priority, he said.

That’s because they are the only ferries small and nimble enough to navigate the challenging harbor at Keystone on the Whidbey Island to Port Townsend run.

Boylston told the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee that new hulls should be considered for three of the four Steel Electrics: the Illahee, Klickitat and Quinault.

That could cost about $40 million apiece, cheaper than the $225 million it could cost to build three new vessels, he said.

Boylston advised against trying to save the Nisqually, which he believes is too far gone to rejuvenate, even with a new hull.

Washington State Ferries figures it could cost more than $3.5 million to patch up the Nisqually to meet Coast Guard demands — with no guarantees those fixes will work.

Tying up the Nisqually for good is under consideration, said Marta Coursey, ferry system communications director.

Boylston said that putting new hulls on three of the Steel Electrics would be quicker than trying to build new boats. The ferries are the oldest operating on salt water in the nation.

“I like it,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee. “No question something needs to be done about the Steel Electric ferries.”

She said the state must move quickly to make sure service is not halted on the Keystone to Port Townsend run. She fears if that if service ever stops, the route will never reopen.

An aggressive plan to replace the aging vessels also could convince federal officials to be cooperative in keeping the Steel Electrics in service until the work is done, she said.

“It could hold off a deadly blow from the Coast Guard,” Haugen said.

The Steel Electrics don’t meet federal safety requirements in place since the 1950s. They are not designed to remain afloat if more than one water-tight compartment floods, which puts them at greater risk of sinking or capsizing.

Modern hull designs keep vessels upright or floating longer if damaged.

Replacing the hulls “seems like a half-baked scheme fraught with change orders,” said Joe Martinac, who has criticized the ferry system for what he sees as delays in replacing the Steel Electrics.

His company, J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. of Tacoma, has proposed building new vessels that could perform on the Keystone to Port Townsend run. The state has not been interested.

Martinac doesn’t think cutting up the old boats and putting them back together on new hulls will work, or save money.

“Is someone going to bid this at $40 million and guarantee no cost overruns to the taxpayers?” he asked. “We couldn’t do that.”

The state expects to issue a report on replacing the Steel Electrics in January, and the hull-replacement option will be included, said Traci Brewer-­Rogstad, chief of staff and deputy executive director for the ferry system.

Boylston was hired to review the state’s ferry replacement program, including the slow progress in building new boats.

Legislators in 2001 authorized new ferries to replace the Steel Electrics. Instead, ferry officials decided to pursue building larger vessels.

Hulls often are replaced on commercial ships, Boylston said.

“We would lift the ship out of the water and cut the house off with a welding torch,” he said.

New hulls would be built to meet all current federal safety standards. “It would be an all new engine, all new controls,” Boylston said. The houses would be lowered on top and attached.

The state has poured more than $4 million into emergency repairs on the Steel Electrics this year after the Coast Guard raised concerns about problems with holes and cracks.

Concrete in the hulls of the ferries was pulled out and the steel below decks was scrutinized. The review turned up a combined total of 160 different structural fractures on the four boats.

All of the hull problems found have been repaired except for those on the Nisqually.

These problems “are not something that’s going to sink the boat, but they are an indication that the hull is eroding and that we need a good maintenance plan moving forward,” said Paula Hammond, the state’s new transportation secretary.

The findings about the hulls “in general were very favorable,” said Paul Brodeur, director of maintenance and preservation for the ferry system. “The hulls were found to be in very good condition.”

Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, bristled at that characterization.

“I would say ‘satisfactory’ for being such old vessels,” he said.

Hammond said she hopes the 80-year-old ferries remain in service long enough to be replaced.

“We know that they have a reasonable life left in them,” she said. “We just need to stay on top of these boats.”

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or

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