State to keep leasing ferries for Port Townsend and Whidbey Island

OLYMPIA — A deal announced Monday won’t change how ferry riders now travel between Port Townsend and Whidbey Island but may avert future problems for taxpayers.

Gov. Chris Gregoire endorsed the agreement allowing Washington State Ferries to continue leasing 50-car vessels from Pierce County for use on the run rather than proceeding to build its own boat of the same design.

This means the state will direct its efforts — and an $85 million budget — to constructing two Island Home-class vessels, each capable of carrying up to 80 vehicles. The lease with Pierce County will be extended until early 2010, when the first of those new boats is due to be delivered.

“The Island Home is what we’re looking for as our permanent solution. I’m glad we’re on track to getting that done,” said Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard.

In a prepared statement, Gregoire said she was “very pleased” with the agreement.

“Earlier this month I was in Port Townsend and heard from citizens on both ends of the route who made it clear that they preferred the larger boats,” she said.

Two Whidbey Island state representatives said this deal will ensure taxpayer dollars go to a permanent solution.

“With this step, I believe we can end the delays and start to build the right boats with the right features that meet the requirements of the challenging water conditions,” Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said in a prepared statement.

Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, expressed concern that the large boats arrive without delay.

“While it’s important we have a new plan, it’s vital that this plan is executed within the timeline promised to the public,” she said.

One Republican senator said Monday’s reversed a bad course for the ferry system.

“We are not going to build the Steilacoom II. That’s good because that’s a bad boat,” said Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

This agreement does not alter the timeline for restoring the use of two boats on the route, a level of service that ended abruptly in November when the state pulled a pair of aging Steel Electric-class boats off the run.

In December, Pierce County started leasing its 50-car Steilacoom II to the state. The rental period was to end this fall because the state intended to build its own 50-car vessel as a replacement until the larger boats arrived.

Under the new agreement, the Steilacoom II will return to Pierce County this September. In its place the state will lease a similarly designed vessel, the Christine Anderson.

Not spending money to build a small boat should provide the state greater certainty that it can pay for the Island Home ferries with the $85 million budgeted by the Legislature.

Money became a concern last month when the state got a wake-up call on how much the cost of boat building has risen. When the state sought bids to build its small boat, only one ship builder responded. That builder’s bid of $26 million was $9 million higher than state engineers’ estimates.

Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond has said the Island Home boats could cost up to $40 million apiece.

Republican state legislators said they will be watching closely to ensure the state delivers these two boats on time and on budget.

“Our communities that rely on ferries don’t want promises — they want action. There should be no excuses from the state this time,” Bailey said.

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

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