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Nichols offers ferry-run fix

Passenger ferry now in place on Keystone route

A day after a passenger-only ferry resumed service between Keystone and Port Townsend, the leader of Freeland’s troubled shipyard told state officials that Nichols Brothers Boat Builders could build a new car ferry for the crossing.

Nichols Brothers CEO Matt Nichols told transportation officials and legislators at a meeting in Seattle Monday that Nichols Brothers Boat Builders could deliver a 54-car ferry within a year to replace the 80-year old vessels that were pulled out of service last week due to safety concerns.

Ferry officials and legislatures had gathered

in Seattle at a conference to discuss the options available to restoring service to the Keystone-Port Townsend ferry run.

Nichols told state officials at the conference that building two or three ferries at less than $20 million each could provide a fast solution to the problem. He proposed using already existing plans for the new ferries, which would cut waiting time down to a year instead of the usual two to four years it takes to construct a new ferry.

The offer comes less than two weeks after Nichols Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Earlier this month, the Freeland shipyard closed down and sent home 185 workers due to ongoing financial problems.

If a federal bankruptcy judge approves a buyout of the company, Nichols Brother could reopen soon, Nichols said Monday.

Ferry officials were open to the proposal by Nichols, but no decisions were made.

Local lawmakers are pressing for the quick replacement of the vessels.

“Time is the issue,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen.

Haugen said she is determined to get vehicle-carrying ferries up and running again between Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula as soon as possible.

In addition to the stop-gap measure of patching up the 80-year-old Steel Electric ferries to get more life out of them, a variety of new ferry configurations were outlined at the meeting, as well as the idea of cutting the superstructures off of the Steel Electrics and putting them onto new hulls.

“Hull replacement is one option,” said Haugen. “But we heard some that are better, and a couple that are just as fast and cost effective.”

“We’re going to take some time to explore the details, but we’re not going to study this to death. Too many people are counting on us to get this done,” she said.

A spokesman for the senator said Haugen is very interested in the idea of using the smaller ferries proposed by Nichols.

Steve Breaux, Haugen’s spokesman, said Haugen thinks the proposal seems to fit the bill of what is needed, and it appears that it can be done cheaper and faster than other alternatives.

It would also offer the scheduling flexibility of running one boat in the winter, two in the summer, and three at peak service times during holiday weekends and other periods.

Ferry officials also said at the meeting that it could take as long as early February before a car ferry returns to service between Keystone and Port Townsend.

Meanwhile, a passenger-only ferry began crossing between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend Sunday evening.

While the foot ferry beats no ferry at all, some commuters said the current fix is not ideal.

Because transit bus schedules don’t fit his work schedule, Navy Lt. Tony Cross, who lives in Bremerton and commutes to the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, said he may not be able to take advantage of the passenger-only ferry.

“I’d be half an hour late,” he said.

Instead, Cross is using a detour route.

“It’s causing us to drive around, up I-5, or do the two-ferry hop,” Cross said. “It has a huge impact. It’s adding 1 1/2 hours to my commute.”

Cross added he is also considering spending the night at the Oak Harbor Navy base during the week.

“I am frustrated,” he said.

On Nov. 21, Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond shut down the ferry route and pulled all Steel Electric class vessels out of service due to safety concerns.

Washington State Ferries owns four 80-year-old Steel Electric class vessels – the Quinault, Klickitat, Illahee and Nisqually. They are the only ferries in the system capable of operating in Keystone’s narrow and shallow harbor.

For several days, including the busy Thanksgiving weekend, there was no service between Keystone and Port Townsend. Passengers were forced to detour and use the Edmonds-Kingston ferry.

The 149-passenger M/V Snohomish will continue to sail between the island and the peninsula. The schedule has also been adjusted to better connect with Island Transit services at Keystone.

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is also running a shuttle from Keystone to Oak Harbor to get the sailors to work. The shuttle runs just once a day, however.

To better serve passengers, the ferry system is coordinating with regional transit providers to help riders set up temporary vanpools and other services. Customers on Whidbey Island can call Island Transit at 321-6688, ext. 3 to set up a vanpool.

Other measures have also been put in place to lessen the impact of the loss of vehicle service on the Port Townsend-Keystone route:

· All pre-paid tickets for the Port Townsend-Keystone route (including multi-ride cards) will continue to be honored on the Mukilteo/Clinton and Edmonds/Kingston route.

· Ferry officials work with individual commuters to determine the easiest most cost-effective way to commute. Travelers can call 1-888-808-7977, ext. 3460 for help.

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