State announces plan to devote $100 million for new ferries

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen said the announcement Thursday that the state will spend $100 million on three new ferries is good news for South Whidbey.

During a press conference in Seattle earlier this week, Gov. Chris Gregoire said she will put $100 million in the 2008 supplemental state budget to pay for the new ferries.

The move means the retirement of the state’s four 80-year-old Steel Electric ferries on the problematic Port Townsend-Keystone run. Service on the route was cancelled the day before Thanksgiving due to safety concerns after significant pitting was discovered on the hull of the ferry Quinault.

“It’s a really exciting day for Whidbey Island; it’s an exciting day for Port Townsend,” Haugen said.

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, Inc., along with Todd Pacific Shipyards and J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corporation, was chosen earlier this year to build new ferries for the state. Haugen said one of the new 144-car ferries may be used on the Clinton-Mukilteo route.

“That’s important for people who live on South Whidbey, because one of those new boats we’ll be producing will hopefully go on that run,” Haugen said.

The senator said the new ferries that will replace the Steel Electrics will be similar to the design of the 54-car ferry MV Steilacoom II, which was built for Pierce County by Nichols Brothers. Matt Nichols, CEO of the Freeland boatyard, recently told state officials he could build a similar ferry for about $20 million and have the project wrapped up within a year.

Haugen, D-10th District, said she has hope that some of the ferry construction work will be handled by the Nichols Brothers boatyard in Freeland.

“We would certainly hope that they are part of the solution to this problem,” Haugen said.

State officials expect to have the first ferry built within two years.

Although passenger-only service was restored on Nov. 25, the cancellation of vehicle-ferry service on the Port Townsend-Keystone route was an economic blow to businesses on the Olympic Peninsula and central and north Whidbey.

Gregoire said the state will now rent a ferry from Pierce County so auto-ferry service can be restarted on the

Port Townsend-Keystone route by mid- to late January.

The state has also launched a passenger-only shuttle service between Seattle and Port Townsend to bring holiday shoppers to the Olympic Peninsula. The Snohomish, a

149-passenger vessel, will sail four times a day between Seattle’s Colman Dock and the Port Townsend Ferry Terminal.

The sailings, which take about 90 minutes for a one-way trip, will continue through early January.

Since the Snohomish is being shifted from the Port Townsend-Keystone route, passenger service from Port Townsend to Whidbey will be picked up by the Puget Sound Express. The Port Townsend company will operate the 49-passenger ferry Olympas from the Point Hudson Marina north of the Port Townsend ferry dock to Keystone Harbor.

Washington will lease the ferry

M/V Christine Anderson from Pierce County to bring back vehicle service to the Port Townsend-Keystone route sometime in January. The 213-foot ferry can carry 54 cars and 250 passengers.

On Thursday, Gregoire also signed a contract with Todd Pacific Shipyards to move forward with a procurement process for the new ferries. The Seattle shipyard will design a 144-car ferry and propose a construction price for building it.

“We must act now to replace older ferries with newer, safer and more efficient vessels,” Gregoire said Thursday.

“The Washington state ferry system is an integral part of the Puget Sound’s transportation infrastructure and a growing number of Washingtonians are coming to rely on them daily. I intend to maintain our current routes without sacrificing the safety of our citizens,” she said.

Gregoire will release her full supplemental budget proposal — which includes money for the three new ferries — on Tuesday, Dec. 18.

Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Senate Transportation Committee, predicted smooth sailing in the Legislature for the governor’s $100 million request for new ferries.

Haugen was certain of political support for the plan.

“I don’t think there’s any question. There’s no question,” Haugen said. “This is like a bridge going down. This is an emergency.”

“The governor is a real leader in this thing,” Haugen added. “When she sees something that needs to be done she rolls up her sleeves and she goes and helps get the votes.”

Washington State Ferries owns four vintage 1927 Steel Electrics; the Quinault, the Klickitat, the Illahee and the Nisqually.

The Illahee and the Quinault have been in drydock since late November. Workers had removed about 70 percent of the paint on the Quinault’s hull by last week and found that as much as 45 percent of the hull needed replacement.

Haugen said it’s likely that the Steel Electrics will be scrapped.

“There’s really not a plan. But I expect within a week they will have determinations on how to use them. Perhaps somebody would want to buy them, I don’t know,” she said.

Thursday’s announcement of changes to ferry service for Port Townsend and Whidbey was not greeted with enthusiasm by all.

Sarah Richards, president of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce, said most of the focus has been on Port Townsend, and Coupeville and Central Whidbey have been pushed to the back burner.

Richards said there has been a significant loss of business on Central Whidbey because of the suspension of vehicle service on the ferries, but the plight of the Coupeville business community was being ignored.

She said the chamber wants the Seattle-Port Townsend passenger ferry to make stops in Coupeville. Another solution would be to start passenger-ferry service to bring people to Coupeville from Seattle.

Richards also said financial support is needed for marketing Central Whidbey businesses after vehicle-ferry service starts up again next year.

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