Questions surround cost, design of new ferries

OLYMPIA – A Whidbey Island lawmaker is raising questions about the design, durability and cost of operating the state’s newest ferries between Coupeville and Port Townsend.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, sent a letter this week to leaders of the state’s transportation department and Washington State Ferries asking why the boats list when empty, vibrate during travel and use more fuel than the larger Steel Electric vessels they replaced.

In the letter, she poses nearly two dozen questions about the Salish and Kennewick, the 64-car, 750-passenger boats in use on the route. The inquiry applies as well to the Chetzemoka, the first boat in this class used on the run, she said.

“Since the legislative session ended, I’ve had a number of conversations with a lot of different people about these issues,” she said Friday. “I’ve ridden the (Salish) and I saw firsthand the list. I experienced some of the vibration. When I saw these things first hand, I felt it was critical we had clear and transparent answers.”

Smith’s not alone in worrying the boats are too costly to operate and won’t last without expensive repairs which ferry riders could be forced to pay.

“She has assembled many of the questions some of us legislators have had since the Chetzemoka joined the fleet,” said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, who along with Smith is in a caucus of legislators with ferry service in their district.

“I wonder if we will be able to use these ferries for the next 50 years,” he said. “With the higher-than-expected costs we may need to think about modifying them or getting rid of them because we cannot afford them.”

On Friday, Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond said she hopes a response can be delivered to Smith next week.

“Many of the questions from Representative Smith are questions we’ve had brought to us before,” she said.

Hammond, in 2007, ordered three ferries in the Steel Electric class, including two on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route, pulled from service when an investigation by The Herald found they were being used to carry passengers despite extensive corrosion and cracking in the 80-year-old hulls.

The route was served by the Steilacoom II, a small ferry on loan from Pierce County, from early 2008 until November 2010, when the $80.1 million Chetzemoka began service.

The Salish and Kennewick were built for roughly $68 million each.

Hammond confirmed the new boats use more fuel than the Steel Electrics because they are bigger and more powerful. State ferry staff is working on quantifying the differences, she said.

And the hull does list – by design — when the vessels are empty of cars and passengers, she said.

The boat’s basic design is from a class known as the Nantucket, in use on the East Coast. It had to be modified to make room for an elevator for the disabled and a septic system, she said. It sits flat when full of cars and the hull lists slightly when empty because of the distribution of the weight of the septic system, fuel tank, elevator and engines.

Smith said this has forced the state to load cars one lane at a time rather than two as had been the historic practice.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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