SEATTLE — A Whidbey Island shipbuilder that has faced rough sailing in recent weeks on Monday gave some state officials hope there may be a swift way to end the crisis surrounding leaking 80-year-old ferries.
Matt Nichols, of Nichols Bros. Boat Builders Inc. on Whidbey Island, told a gathering of state legislators and transportation leaders at Washington State Ferries headquarters in Seattle that his company could within a year deliver a 54-car ferry that could replace the state’s Steel Electric-class vessels, which have been ordered tied up because of safety concerns.
Building two or three of the boats, at less than $20 million each, could provide a swift and more flexible way to provide ferry service on the challenging route between Keystone on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, the Freeland-based shipbuilder said.
The boats, which would fit in narrow Keystone Harbor, would be constructed using plans from the Steilacoom II, a vessel built jointly by Nichols Bros. and Todd Shipyard in Seattle. Pierce County early this year began using that ferry to provide service to Anderson and Ketron islands in south Puget Sound.
“If you want to do this fast, you want to do this boat here,” Nichols said.
Nichols Bros. earlier this month shut its doors and filed for bankruptcy protection. The move was in response to a messy federal lawsuit over a shipbuilding contract. The company plans to reopen soon with new backers, Nichols said after the meeting.
Building ferries to replace the Steel Electrics “would really be great and get 200 guys back to work,” he said.
State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said she found Nichols Bros.’ idea intriguing and worthy of more study.
State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who heads the Senate Transportation Committee, was openly supportive.
“Three boats going on a faster basis would serve the community well,” reducing wait times and traffic impacts associated with larger vessels, she said.
Monday’s meeting was the first time lawmakers had a chance to meet with Hammond since her Nov. 20 decision to pull the Steel Electrics from service right before the Thanksgiving holiday rush.
Hammond ordered the boats tied up after engineering crews on the Quinault began scraping paint inside the hull and found extensive pitting and corrosion on 1927-vintage steel along the keel. The weakened metal is a safety concern, and similar problems are expected to be found on the ferry’s sister vessels, the Klickitat, Illahee and Nisqually, she said.
The Quinault and Nisqually already were out of service, undergoing repairs or being prepped for inspection. The loss of the Klickitat shut down ferry service on the Keystone-to-Port Townsend run.
Although passenger-only service resumed Sunday, ferries aren’t expected to again begin moving cars and freight between Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula before February, state ferries chief Mike Anderson told Monday’s meeting.
He expects it will cost $4 million to repair the Quinault sufficiently to return it to service. The state already has spent close to $4 million on emergency repairs on the Steel Electrics this year.
Representatives from Nichols, Todd Shipyards and the J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. of Tacoma all urged state leaders to move with haste and prudence. That was particularly true in evaluating a proposal to try to salvage the top portions of the Steel Electrics by placing them on new hulls.
John Boylston, a maritime consultant hired by state legislators, said the superstructures on the Steel Electrics are largely new, rebuilt in the 1980s when the vessels last underwent major renovations. The hulls, on the other hand, were built with steel forged in a bygone era, and are in need of retirement.
“I think you’ve made an excellent decision taking these four ships out of service,” Boylston said. “I’m really quite impressed.”
Cutting the vessels up and attaching the salvageable parts to new hulls — an option critics have begun calling the “Frankenferry” proposal — would cost about $30 million a vessel and offer a speedier alternative than building new ferries from scratch, the consultant said.
Shipbuilders said there are technical problems with the plan and predicted it would ultimately be too costly.
Steve Welch, chief executive officer at Todd Shipyards, said it almost always is more costly to make major changes to a vessel. He urged state officials to balance the need for speed with making the right investment.
Shipbuilder Joe Martinac Jr. urged state officials to keep an open mind about vessel design and financing options. He’s been pushing state officials since the 1990s to replace the Steel Electrics and has even designed a 130-car ferry that he says will safely navigate Keystone Harbor.
Hammond said she hopes to have some recommendations to state legislators by January. Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday said finding a solution to the Steel Electric problem will be a big task awaiting lawmakers in 2008.
State Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said even if repairs are possible, there is no doubt the Steel Electrics must be replaced — and fast.
“These are 80-year-old boats, for goodness’ sakes,” she said.
State Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said the need for a speedy solution is apparent.
“The last thing in the world I want to see is another year of study,” she said.
Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or email@example.com.