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Sailing failings: New ferries see less use, more weather cancelations

The MV Kennewick steams out of Keystone Thursday on it’s way to Port Townsend. One of three new ferries built to serve the route, the boats have come under fire who question their cost and design. - Justin Burnett / The Record
The MV Kennewick steams out of Keystone Thursday on it’s way to Port Townsend. One of three new ferries built to serve the route, the boats have come under fire who question their cost and design.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Already under fire over a slew of cost and design concerns, Washington’s newest ferries are earning fresh criticism from one state lawmaker as operational statistics reveal new questions about the vessels’ performance.

A review of state Department of Transportation statistics by the Record shows that, in two years of service on the Coupeville-to-Port Townsend ferry route, Kwa-di Tabil class ferries are less used by the public and more susceptible to weather cancelations than their predecessors.

Last year, total ridership on the route — including cars and walk-on passengers — was down 12 percent from 2006, the last full year the 80-year-old Steel Electrics were in service.

That pencils out to nearly 83,000 fewer riders than the 766,843 who rode the ferries six years ago. During the same period, weather cancelations rose 128 percent, from just 64 runs scrubbed in 2006 to 146 last year.

Ferry officials blame ridership numbers on the economy and changing transportation habits of the public. Also, the route was served by a smaller vessel for years after the Steel Electrics were retired in late 2007 and the impacts are still being felt.

“It takes a while to get your ridership back,” said George Capacci, deputy chief of operations and construction.

As for the weather cancelations, he attributes that to brand new boats that crews are still getting used to. He said he would never question a captain’s judgment, and understands that it will take time for them to fully adjust to the new ferries.

Crews had 80 years to dial in the performance of the Steel Electrics, he said.

“In the 60-year lifespan of a vessel, these are still just babies,” Capacci said.

“I would chalk it up to new vessels and captains getting used to them.”

The statistics irritate state Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, one of 15 state lawmakers who questions ferry officials over design and cost issues surrounding the three new ferries.

In the rush to replace the Steel Electrics, they claim the state paid too much for the new boats — particularly the $83.6 million Chetzemoka.  They also say the new ferries are riddled with design flaws introduced by agency experts, which are adding to maintenance and operational costs.

Smith called the performance statistics another “significant issue” against the new ferries but said of the two, the weather cancelations are far more concerning.

“Communities should be able to expect that modern vessels will have a better performance record than their 80-year-old predecessors,” Smith said.

She also takes exception with Capacci’s explanation, that weather cancelations are the result of crew unfamiliarity.

“That’s offensive to the outstanding people working on these ferries,” Smith said. “These are professionals.”

Despite the subpar service record, many daily commuters appear satisfied with the new ferries. In fact, some report reliability improved.

“The overall impression (of the commuter community) is that the boats have been at least as reliable as the Steel Electrics,” said Jerry Mingo, a Port Townsend resident who works for Island County.

Rob Harbour travels between his home in Coupeville and a house he’s building in Port Townsend. He said he hasn’t experienced too many headaches over reliability and he doesn’t feel the ferries are unsafe. He has noticed some smaller issues, however.

“The outside windows are dirty a lot,” Harbour said.

There is no ledge to stand on along the outside of the passenger deck so the windows are rarely cleaned.

Ferry workers have grumbled about the oversight since the Chetzemoka hit the water in late 2010.

But the missing ledge is just one of a string of design issues that’s plagued the Kwa-di Tabil ferries.

The initial lack of an adequate rub rail, vibration issues, need for a better rudder and propeller on the second and third boats, high sail area that can be troublesome in high winds, increased fuel consumption; all have been points of criticism.

The biggest complaints, however, were in response to the fact that each vessel has a three-degree list — the result of each boat’s single stairwell being located on one side rather than in the center.

It quickly earned the Chetzemoka the unofficial and unflattering name of “I-lean” among ferry workers.

Leading department officials, including Capacci, claimed the boat was designed that way, and that the list goes away once the ferries are loaded with cars. Last week, the agency confirmed plans to spend an estimated $300,000 to fix the problem.

Capacci maintains that the list isn’t a safety or performance issue but that the work is being done largely to address “public perception” of a problem fueled by customer, employee and lawmaker concern.

“It’s become a vocal point … but we don’t see it as an operational issue,” Capacci said.

Capacci said about 80 tons of ballast will be added to correct the problem but confirmed that each boat will still list about a half degree.

No negative impacts to fuel efficiency are expected.

Having the boat and propeller sit lower in the water will make the engines run more efficiently but the added weight makes them work harder, resulting in a financial wash, Capacci said.

Smith argues that correcting the list is not throwing good money after bad, claiming it’s contributed to untimely maintenance issues, such as elevators parts wearing out too quickly.

Last month, a report by the state Auditor’s Office determined the Chetzemoka cost nearly $50 million more to build than a similar ferry built on the East Coast a few years ago.

Smith and 15 other lawmakers asked the Auditor to perform a second audit, this time to determine how the design problems might impact maintenance and operational costs over the lifespan of the ferry.

Smith says legislators are in a pinch to get boats built fast and relied on the judgment and expertise of ferry officials. What they got were vessels riddled with problems and taxpayers are footing the bill.

“It’s simply unacceptable,” she said.

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