Washington State Ferry travelers board the new Tokitae, a 144-car ferry that began service on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route this week. The boat has come under fire, however, due to problems with its car ramps.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Washington State Ferry travelers board the new Tokitae, a 144-car ferry that began service on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route this week. The boat has come under fire, however, due to problems with its car ramps.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Ramps on the state’s new 144-car ferry, Tokitae, which entered service Monday, may be too steep for some cars and cause them to scrape their undercarriages.

The ferry’s first day was marred with questions about its design and Washington State Ferries management, as charged by a pair of state representatives, including one from South Whidbey.

State Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, has been down this path of after-the-fact ferry resolutions before, and she is fired up that she must travel it again.

Back in February, Smith and fellow State Rep. Larry Seaquist of Gig Harbor asked Washington State Department of Transportation, Ferries Division leaders about a problem they’d heard of with the ramp causing some cars to scrape their undercarriage or “bottom out.” They were told in March by ferries leaders that it was not an issue.

Now they’re hearing it is indeed a problem, and that ferry crews will have to sort which cars go up the ramp and which stay on the ramp car deck.

Smith was incensed, saying she and the entire Washington Legislature were misled in a way similar to when a list with the 64-car Kwa-di Tabil-class ferries, such as the one that services the Keystone-to-Port Townsend route, occurred.

“I’ve already done this once with the 64-car ferries,” Smith said. “To do this again is simply unacceptable.”

Now she wants Gov. Jay Inslee to “clean house” with ferries division upper management, create an expert panel to review ferries operations and labor management, and make recommendations to the new ferries chief.

Having crews pick which vehicles go up the ramp and which stay below is a standard procedure, according to a ferries spokeswoman. She noted that the ramp slope on the Issaquah-class ferries is steeper than on the Tokitae, which has a higher edge from the up-ramp to upper car deck. For example, heavy or “extra long” vehicles are kept on the main car deck.

“Loading and unloading procedures are always part of the training process,” said ferries Spokeswoman Marta Coursey. “Quite honestly, our crews always do this.”

“Our crews are doing fine and do this all the time.”

Coursey said ferries tested loading cars of different wheelbase lengths, clearances and weights in February and March. Ferries found that a Ford Taurus, a full-size sedan, with a few occupants was able to get to the upper deck without bottoming out.

The Tokitae’s entry into service was delayed more than two weeks. Ferries said it needed the time because it was delivered later than planned and crews needed more time to familiarize themselves with the vessel. Coursey said the service delay was not related to the slope issue or crews learning which cars can’t make it up the ramp. Instead, she said the sheer number of crew that had to be trained on the vessel led to the late start.

“Every single crew member had to be trained and familiarized with the new vessel … it was just the volume of people who had to be trained,” Coursey said.

More cars, more problems Jace Norton, 11, of Shoreline, peers out over the railing of the new Tokitae ferry, part of the Washington State Ferries fleet. Along with 6-year-old Ivana Cumic and 11-year-old Nikola Cumic, they were heading to Mukilteo on June 30.

Having the boat late, even with a few issues, was better than not having one at all for one Clinton community leader. The unincorporated area of Island County, which is home to the ferry terminal landing, has long clamored for new vessels to serve the route to Mukilteo. Seeing the boat during an open house earlier this month and on its first day of service brought up a different issue — passenger loading — for Jack Lynch, a member of the Clinton Community Council.

“It points out more than ever, the need for overhead loading for passengers,” he said.

More cars could be a benefit for Clinton with increased visitors. But Lynch cautioned that the new ferry, which holds about 20 more cars than its predecessor, also comes with the reality of having to wait, at certain times, longer to cross Highway 525, which essentially splits Clinton’s commercial area in half every 30 minutes as cars zoom off the ferry and onto the state route.

“This is just my opinion. I think that more cars passing through is not necessarily an improvement. Maybe because there are more cars that can be accommodated, at certain times that may benefit the residents here.”

Smith’s charge for greater transparency from state ferries and an overhaul of its management stems from her call for accountability to the public and the communities ferries serve, including the one in which she lives. She said rising fares have hurt ferry-dependent communities, and she wanted to make sure funding was being spent wisely.

“They need to address it and need to be held accountable for misleading the Legislature,” Smith said.

Not the builder’s fault

The buck stops with ferries, according to Smith. Her district also covers the area where one of the subcontractors that worked on the Tokitae is located. She said the blame is not theirs.

“They built what they were asked to build,” Smith said. “Washington State Ferries spent tens of millions of dollars designing this boat.”

“They signed off on this design, and they’re the experts to know how to load cars in a timely way,” she added.

About 15 miles from the Clinton Ferry Terminal resides Freeland-based Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, the company that built the Tokitae’s superstructure — the upper car deck, passenger area, sun deck and bridge. Its chief executive officer, Matt Nichols, was surprised to hear of the controversy surrounding the ramp’s design Monday morning. Nichols said his company built its part to the specifications they were given, and that if there was indeed an issue with the top of the ramp, the second and third ferries ordered by the state could be fixed.

He had not driven onto the ferry yet, but said that if he took the right car, he’d know in a hurry if there was a problem.

“If I drove my Corvette up there, and there was an issue, that would be the first kind of car to drag,” Nichols said.

Other issues Walk-on passengers wait to board the Tokitae on one of its first sailings June 30. At right, David Sawyer of Wenatchee holds his daughter, Kailynn, after taking the ferry from Mukilteo to Clinton just for the ride.

At the end of its first day in service, a small hydraulic leak was discovered. Coursey said it was found after it was tied up Monday night, and the leak was in the production gear clutch. Repairs were made that night, but it went through a sea trial Tuesday morning.

“Because it’s a new vessel and the Coast Guard is monitoring it very closely, it required a sea trial this morning,” Coursey said.

“It’s not uncommon when you’re running a vessel on route and have it on service, you run and test everything,” she added.

It missed two morning sailings, the 5:10 from Clinton and the 5:35 from Mukilteo, and returned to service by 6 a.m.

Smith asked that as the crews continue to learn the new boat and how to better load and unload cars, that passengers be patient with ferries workers.

“Ultimately, our communities are going to be well served,” Smith said.

First day of sailings

Unaware of the issues dogging the towering green and white vessel were several passengers on one of its first few sailings. The ferry landed at Clinton a bit late, and thus disembarked a few minutes behind schedule around 1 p.m. Monday. One family had the distinction of being some of the first passengers aboard the Tokitae.

“It looks a lot nicer than it used to be,” said David Sawyer of Wenatchee, who was visiting family in the area.

His wife agreed, though not nearly as enthusiastically as their 2-year-old daughter, Kailynn.

“We had to stay outside and watch the water,” Kierstan Sawyer said. “We had an open outside and she wouldn’t let us move.”


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