State poised to buy only 2 larger ferries

OLYMPIA — The state may not build a small car ferry to serve Whidbey Island and Port Townsend after reaching an agreement in principle Friday to continue leasing boats for the run from Pierce County.

The accord, which is not signed, would enable Washington State Ferries to focus solely on building two vessels of the Island Home class that are larger, preferred by community leaders and considered better suited for handling the rough waters of Admiralty Inlet.

Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to review and approve the arrangement early next week.

“This is not a done deal,” Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond emphasized Friday evening. “We are negotiating details with Pierce County. We are very pleased they’re willing to work with us.

“I’m waiting to talk to the governor. I think this will work out,” Hammond said.

Hammond is cautious because the timing is crucial.

The state Legislature directed the department to build a 50-car ferry based on the design of the Steilacoom II, the boat it now leases from Pierce County to serve the route.

Last month, it advertised for that work but the effort stalled when only one shipbuilder vied for the contract and its bid came in $9 million higher than state engineer estimates.

As the state prepared to re-advertise the contract, Hammond and new ferries director David Moseley negotiated with Pierce County officials to continue leasing the Steilacoom II or to lease its other similar-sized boat, the Christine Anderson.

Hammond said she will pursue a new bid for a Steilacoom II-class vessel as early as Monday if the negotiations completed this week somehow come up empty.

“If we can make this deal work out on Monday then we won’t be going out to bid,” she said Friday.

Under the framework of the agreement, the Steilacoom II would be replaced with the Christine Anderson in September after the latter boat undergoes its scheduled maintenance. While in drydock, the Christine Anderson would receive additional retrofitting to ready it for use by the state.

The Christine Anderson would remain in use by the ferry system until mid-2010 when the first of the two new Island Home ferries would be expected to arrive.

The proposed ferry lease agreement could end debate on how to best provide service between Keystone and Port Townsend. The saga began when aging Steel Electric-class vessels were yanked from the run in November.

The state restored service between Whidbey and Port Townsend after signing a deal with Pierce County to lease the Steilacoom II until early 2009.

Earlier this year, Gregoire and the Legislature budgeted $85 million to pay for a Steilacoom II-style vessel and two of the Island Home-class ferries capable of carrying up to 80 vehicles.

Given the rising costs of labor and materials, the $85 million may only be enough to pay for the two larger vessels, Hammond said Friday.

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

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