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Marine Log

December 16, 2007

Washington State to scrap Steel Electric ferries

Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire last week proposed investing $100 million in the Washington State ferry system; $64 million will come from $350 million allocated for construction of other vessels, and $36 million would be from money appropriated for a ferry terminal.

Gregoire 's 2008 supplemental budget proposal of $100 million for the construction of three new ferries will allow Washington State Ferries to retire the 80-year old Steel Electric ferries, the oldest vessels in the fleet. The four Steel Electrics were pulled from service Nov. 20 by Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond for safety reasons related to severely deteriorated hulls.

WSF owns four Steel Electric class vessels Quinault, Klickitat, Illahee and Nisqually. These vessels, built in 1927--to serve in San Francisco before the Bay Bridge opened-- predominantly serve the Port Townsend-Keystone and San Juan Islands inter-island routes. They are the only ferries in the system capable of operating in Keystones narrow and shallow harbor.

With dry dock inspections of the vessels revealing ever greater problems as more paint was chipped from the hulls, a Joint Transportation Committee of influential state legislators recommended that the four Steel Electric ferries be scrapped, not fixed.

Now the state will rent a ferry from Pierce County in order to resume auto-service on the Port Townsend-Keystone route by mid-to late-January. Elliott Bay Design Group, which designed the Pierce County ferries, is being asked to come up with a design for the new WSF vessels within two months, according to Hammond.

Matt Nichols of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, which built one of of the Pierce County ferriess, has said he, in a consortium of two other boat builders, could build a new boat for Keystone in about a year for $20 million. Nichols Brothers is currently operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is reportedly working on some projects under an arrangement that sees yard employees and materials being paid for directly by customers anxious to get their vessels completed.

Once Elliott Bay Design has come up with a new design, WSF will advertise for builders for a four week period, with bids being open to any eligible Washington State yard.