Two state lawmakers raise concerns over new ferry’s design

OLYMPIA — Washington’s newest ferry went into service Monday amid the concerns of two lawmakers that a flawed design is causing some vehicles to bottom out as they transition from ramps onto upper parking decks.

Under a blanket of blue sky, the Tokitae sailed on its maiden voyage at noon from Clinton to Mukilteo, with no fanfare.

The 144-car vessel, with a capacity 20 cars more than the Cathlamet it is replacing, cost $144 million and is the first of three Olympic-class boats being built for the state at the Vigor Industrial shipyard in Seattle. Total shipyard cost for the newest boats in the Washington State Ferries fleet is $388 million.

The Tokitae’s much-anticipated entry into service came as two lawmakers alleged they were misled about a problem for some cars with low clearances and long wheelbases. As they reach the upper parking deck, the lawmakers say, some scrape their undercarriage.

Reps. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, and Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said senior ferry system managers told them in March at the shipyard that their worries were unwarranted.

But ferry workers contacted them last week to say part of their training on the vessel involved learning how to keep cars with low clearances from going up the ramps.

Ferries managers “told us in March they had looked at it, there was adequate clearance and there was not a problem,” Smith said. “We were simply misled. If the proper analysis had been done, this would never have happened.”

Capt. George Capacci, interim ferries chief, said Monday he’s tried to be as transparent as possible with the lawmakers since they first raised the concern earlier this year.

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” Capacci said. Deck hands responsible for loading and unloading cars are experienced at figuring out which vehicles can handle the transition without trouble and which might have trouble, he said.

On the Tokitae, the upper end of the ramps are sharper than those on other vessels, and that might increase the potential for scraping, Capacci said.

Testing was done by driving cars with difference clearances on the ramps. In one test, he rode in a Ford Taurus with three others and handled the ramp without difficulty, he said.

Capacci said he put in a change order to create a smoother ramp on the Samish, which is under construction, and the third as-yet unnamed vessel on which work has not yet begun.

“I do not think it’s a fatal flaw,” he said of the Tokitae design. “I think it’s one of those grooming issues you deal with when you bring a new vessel into service. There are things we do to vessels during the life of a vessel to make it better.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee said that if it is a problem, the boat builder is responsible for getting it fixed.

“The governor is aware of Reps. Seaquist’s and Smith’s concerns about whether cars can safely board and unboard the vessel. WSF has sent results of test vehicles showing no problems boarding or unboarding the vessel,” spokeswoman Jaime Smith wrote in an email.

“Ultimately, the governor will hold the contractor accountable for delivering a safe vessel — any modifications to the design of other vessels is something Vigor would need to address,” she wrote.

The ferry agency’s response to their concerns spurred Smith and Seaquist to ask Inslee to appoint an independent panel of experts to “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation” of ferry operations and labor-management issues. They also want the governor to put new people in place — even before a new ferries director is hired.

“WSF must be held accountable,” the two wrote in a letter to Inslee on June 27. “To ensure improvements in the department, we are strongly advising a major overhaul of upper management in the ferries division in order to restore public trust.”

A spokeswoman for the governor said any leadership changes will have to wait until a new director is hired to run Washington State Ferries.

Capacci was one of two finalists for the job when he pulled out last month. Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson decided that rather than hire the other finalist, she would restart the search.

“Once the new director is in place, we can have a conversation about what he or she needs to have a team and structure in place that works,” wrote Smith, Inslee’s spokeswoman.

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

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