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Shipbuilder pushes new ferry design

This is a drawing of the 130-car, 1,200-passenger ferries proposed to Washington State Ferries by J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding, Tacoma. Called Island Class, the vessels would cost $242 million each. That is $80 million less than four 110-car boats the ferry system considered building prior to the defeat of Referendum 51 in the November election. -
This is a drawing of the 130-car, 1,200-passenger ferries proposed to Washington State Ferries by J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding, Tacoma. Called Island Class, the vessels would cost $242 million each. That is $80 million less than four 110-car boats the ferry system considered building prior to the defeat of Referendum 51 in the November election.
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Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber editor

A coalition of private businesses, including J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. of Tacoma, is proposing to build and lease four 130-car, 1,200-passenger ferries to the Washington State Ferries system at no up-front cost to the state.

But as of now, even though the price seems to be right, WSF is not buying. In fact, the proposal seems to have annoyed ferry officials, who say they've had the design pushed on them.

Dubbed the Island Class ferry, the proposal has gotten the attention of Gov. Gary Locke, legislators and ferry system CEO Mike Thorne through the efforts of Martinac publicist Jonathan Platt. Platt recently made the proposal public at a meeting on Vashon Island, home of naval architect Guido Perla, who designed the ferry.

But like a car buyer who wouldn't accept the first car a salesman suggests, WSF officials are not ready to buy a boat about which they know very little. On top of that, said WSF spokeswoman Pat Patterson, the ferry system doesn't have the money to even consider buying new vessels.

"The bottom line is there is no money anywhere," she said. "It's curious to me why they would continue to push this."

In the works for six years, the Safe Passage Ferries Project is a joint effort between Martinac, Guido Perla & Associates, GE Industrial Systems, General Motors/Allison, Rolls-Royce/Kamewa Group, and GE Capital Public Finance. Proponents say Island Ferries would meet Coast Guard regulations, would solve wake problems larger boats have had in Rich Passage, would navigate into Keystone, would not require taxpayer funding, and could be delivered 27 months from the day the state says "Go."

The vessels would cost $242 million each, $80 million less than four new, 110-car boats the ferry system considered building prior to the failure of gas tax Referendum 51.

Prior to the failure of Ref. 51 in November, the ferry system planned retire Steel-Electric class ferries Illahee, Klickitat, Nisqually, Quinault, and Rhododendron and replace them. The boats do not meet Coast Guard safety standards and were built in 1927, the year Charles Lindberg flew across the Atlantic Ocean. The four boats carry a total of 365 cars and 2,914 passengers. Four 110-car replacement boats proposed by the ferry system would increase that capacity to 440 cars and 3,200 passengers.

But, said Martinac's Platt, four new Island Ferries would do even better for a better price, carrying 520 cars and 4,800 passengers combined.

Broken down, the ferry system's plan would cost $731,818 per car slot while Safe Passage Island Ferries would be built at a cost of $465,000 per car slot. Platt also said the ferry system would save money on construction because it would not have to pay out a dime until the boats were delivered.

Platt said the governor finds the Safe Passage proposal favorable, WSF CEO Mike Thorne has been harder to convince. WSF's Patterson said this is with good reason.

"But what they have going is a vessel we have neither seen the specifications for, nor have our captains and engineers had a chance to inspect," she said. "And finally, I think it's ludicrous to have someone propose we buy something we don't know the inner workings of."

The Safe Passage proposal was run past former WSF CEO Paul Green and acting director Terry McCarthy. Both turned it down.

"We're essentially being told what to buy," she said.

Perla, the Island Ferry designer, has faith in his design. He said it is efficient, affordable and state-of-the-art, and could be used on almost every route in the system. It would also be quieter than existing ferries, wider to accommodate larger new cars and would meet the latest Coast Guard requirements.

A regular ferry user, Perla said he believes the ferry system is missing the boat when it comes to designing ferries.

"Ferries are very simple and they (the ferry system) are spending unbelievable amounts of money on these," he said. "I'm not saying mine is the best, but it's a solution."

If the ferry system did decide to go with the Safe Passage proposal, it would have to bid the project. By law, ferries running in state waters must be built in the state. That leaves J.M. Martinac, Todd Shipyard in Seattle, Dakota Creek in Anacortes and perhaps Nichols Brothers on Whidbey as the possible builders. Martinac would still make money off its design even if it did not win the construction contract: Company lobbiests recently convinced the Legislature to allow for design cost reimbursements to designers who lose in a bid process.

The ferry system would buy the boats on a rent-to-own basis. WSF would own the boats after 15 years of payments.

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