Next move on new ferry unclear

OLYMPIA — State ferry officials are scrambling for options after a bid for a new 50-vehicle ferry came in $9 million higher than anticipated.

They are studying if it is possible to negotiate a lower price for the new boat, possibly through change orders.

They are weighing whether to reject the bid and instead pursue building two to three larger ferries of the Island Home design, which carry about 75 vehicles.

One option that won’t be pursued is spending more money trying to repair one or more of the state’s Steel Electric-class ferries, which were retired in November over questions about cracks, leaks and corrosion in their 81-year-old hulls, state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said Tuesday.

“We’ve done that cost-benefit. We know that it is not a good solution,” Hammond said. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that is an option and I don’t think anybody else does either.”

The notion that the Steel Electrics could be recalled from retirement surfaced last week at a meeting in Coupeville attended by David Moseley, the state’s new deputy transportation secretary for ferries.

Moseley reportedly told the group that he wanted to study all options, and did not expressly rule out bringing back a Steel Electric.

That news didn’t sit well with some state lawmakers.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said she would oppose spending money to fix up and use a Steel Electric.

“That’s an absolute no,” she said Monday.

The state budget contains $85 million for new smaller ferries and no money for Steel Electric repairs.

Pulling the Steel Electrics forced the state to temporarily shut down ferry service between Keystone on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.

That’s because the Steel Electrics were the only ferries in the state fleet that were small and agile enough to negotiate the narrow Keystone Harbor while at the same time permitted by the Coast Guard to transit challenging Admiralty Inlet.

The state restored ferry service between Keystone and Port Townsend after Pierce County agreed to lease the ferry system its Steilacoom II ferry.

Although the Steilacoom II has operated on the run to mixed reviews, the state had sought bids for construction of a 50-vehicle ferry of the same design, believing the vessel could be built swiftly.

Todd Pacific Shipyards of Seattle entered the lone bid on the boat at a price of $25,985,125.

Ferries engineers had estimated the cost of constructing the new craft to be $16.8 million.

Todd Chief Executive Stephen Welch last week explained in a letter to ferries officials that the additional cost was the result of changes requested by the state, including adding a double bottom to fuel tanks, crew quarters, complying with newer safety and construction standards and paying higher costs of materials and labor.

Hammond said she expects to announce this week what to do about the bid. One option is to move up bidding on larger, more robust Island Home-class ferries that could carry more cars and people than the Steilacoom II, she said.

Ferry officials believe it could be possible to have an Island Home vessel on the route by early 2010.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, a former U.S. Navy warship captain, said the state needs to re-evaluate its options.

“We’ve got some thinking to do. Personally, I would not be opposed to letting that small boat go,” he said.

When ferry officials first started looking at building ferries for the Keystone route, the Steilacoom boat “was the only option in view. Maybe now it’s not the smartest option,” Seaquist said.

Meantime, state officials are again scouring the nation, looking for other ferries that may be pressed into service to help carry traffic while new boats are being built. A search last summer turned up no suitable vessels, but Hammond said taking a second look makes sense now.

Pierce County officials have made it clear that the state ferry system can only use the Steilacoom II for about a year, she said.

“They are sensitive to their need to use their own boat,” Hammond said. “They paid for it.”

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

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