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Sen. Haugen: State can’t wait forever for new ferries

COUPEVILLE — State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen lambasted critics this week who are second guessing the move to spend $100 million on new ferries.

The Camano Island Democrat also had harsh words for Washington State Ferries, which she said is more focused on building new, multi-million-dollar ferry terminals than spending money to construct the vessels needed to ply the waters of Puget Sound.

In late November, vehicle-ferry service between Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula was shut down due to extensive damage to the steel hulls of the state’s Steel Electric ferries.

Last week, Gov. Christine Gregoire announced she would put $100 million in the 2008 supplemental state budget to pay for new ferries that are needed now that the state has permanently pulled its four Steel Electrics from service.

The state is looking for a quick fix to get car-carrying vessels in place that can serve the Keystone-Port Townsend route. But some have questioned whether the move to build a smaller 54-car ferry within the next two years is the right way to go.

At a “council of governments” meeting Wednesday, Haugen defended the plan for new ferries. It’s no surprise that the Steel Electrics — which were built in 1927 — need to be replaced, she said.

“People have grumbled a lot about the ferries, there’s no question about it,” Haugen said. “People say, ‘How did we get to where we are?’ Well, the fact of the matter is, we’ve always known the Steel Electrics needed to be replaced.”

She recounted how the state ferry system wanted one size of boats — ones that can carry 144 vehicles — and also wanted to move the Keystone terminal.

“There isn’t enough money, or enough time, to move that terminal. You who live here know that people weren’t supportive of it.”

The ferry system also figured funding for the project was available. It wasn’t, said Haugen, D-10th District.

“We all have heartburn over the fact that it’s a smaller boat,” Haugen said, adding that some within Washington State Ferries are resistant to the plan for smaller vessels.

“As far as the seaworthiness of it, I can tell you, the ferry system does not like the way we’re going. And so the ferry system is going to tell you all sorts of things, because they want to do what they want to do,” Haugen told other elected officials at the meeting in Coupeville.

“We are finally telling the ferry system you’re going to do what needs to be done, not what you want to do. And so that’s why we are moving in this direction.

“These boats can be done fast,” she said. “We don’t need to wait.”

Haugen, who is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said there are two issues: Getting boats back in service or waiting years for bigger vessels.

There is no sense in waiting for larger ferries because they can’t be used on the Keystone-Port Townsend route without a new terminal.

And a new terminal is not in the future, Haugen said. As it stands, the state will have to take money from the new terminal project in Mukilteo to pay for new ferries.

“We’re never going to be able to build a new (Keystone) terminal. The fact of the matter is, we’re going to be taking money out of Mukilteo,” she said.

She also criticized Washington State Ferries for its focus on multi-million dollar terminals.

“We need to build boats. The ferry system needs good boats. It doesn’t need fancy terminals. It needs safe terminals that work well.

“The most important thing to me is to get boats back on that run,” Haugen said.

State Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-10th District, however, said she didn’t want a short-term answer to a long-term problem.

“We’re going to have to live with it for a long time,” she said, adding that she has concerns about the size of the new ferries. “We’ll probably have — with those boats — more cancelled runs than we actually experienced in the past. That concerns me,” Bailey said.

“They are smaller boats, but they’re the only boats, I’m being told. This is the only design right now that can be done quickly, because it’s already been designed and built in the state,” Bailey said.

Bailey, though, was pressed if she agreed with the governor’s decision to spend $100 million on the new ferries.

“Right now, that’s the only proposal we have,” Bailey said.

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