Shipyards may team up to build 4 new ferries

OLYMPIA – An unprecedented deal among the state’s three major shipbuilders may clear the way for building four new large ferries, state officials said Thursday.

The deal could be worth about $348 million.

A 13-page proposal submitted by the rival boat builders to Washington State Ferries lays out how they would divide work on the 144-vehicle ferries with a projection of finishing the first vessel within two years of signing a contract with the state.

The agreement establishes Todd Pacific Shipyards Corp. of Seattle as lead contractor with J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. of Tacoma and Nichols Brothers Boat Builders Inc. of Freeland on Whidbey Island as the primary subcontractors.

Ferry officials will spend the next two weeks reviewing the proposal. If no snags are discovered, the extensive process of negotiating a contract, setting a price and assembling a vessel will get under way.

“We’re going to be able to build boats. Isn’t that great?” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, the chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “We’re moving forward, which is huge. All these delays cost money.”

Until now, the firms have competed fiercely to win the rights to a contract with a potential worth of $348 million.

Conflicts arising in the competition, and the way the state officials handled the process, brought ferry building efforts crashing to a halt.

“We might have found a path forward to build ferry boats and that would be a matter of great satisfaction to everybody involved,” Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said.

Tom Fitzsimmons, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s chief of staff, said the governor is pleased with the outcome. “This is a major accomplishment achieved through the collaboration of boat builders that normally compete,” he said.

The Legislature authorized the construction of four vehicle ferries in 2001 and allocated money for them in 2003.

Subsequent state decisions on the ferry design, propulsion systems and bid process led to discord, delay and lawsuits.

Martinac’s frustration grew into a federal lawsuit alleging state officials engaged in civil racketeering in how they handled the project.

Fitzsimmons said he expects the lawsuit to be “on the back burner.” The agreement has no impact on the case, Martinac attorney Jed Powell said.

“We entered into these discussions hopeful of reaching agreement, but knowing it could be difficult because the yards have often competed against each other,” Steve Welch, Todd’s chief executive officer, said in a prepared statement.

Joe Martinac Jr. said his firm entered the negotiations with cautious optimism.

“To my knowledge this joint-build proposal is the first of its kind for building ferries in the state’s history,” he said.

“Understandably we are proud to be a part of this,” he said. “Washington needs new ferries, and we look forward to working with Todd and Nichols in building these boats, on time and on budget.”

The three firms will share in a lucrative contract.

The state estimates the cost of four boats is $347.6 million. Legislators included $127 million in the biennium budget that starts July 1.

None of the boats is expected to replace the oldest boats in the fleet: the 80-year-old Steel Electric class ferries that run on the Keystone-Port Townsend and other routes.

Construction would be finished in a 45-month period, according to information from the companies by ferry officials.

The first boat would be complete in 22 months with a new one completed every seven to eight months after that.

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

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