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Nichols Bros. may have inside track on new ferries

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland stands to benefit directly if the state builds three more 64-car ferries in the next four years.

“It sounds good,” Matt Nichols, managing director for business development, said Monday. “I sure hope they do it.”

State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen said at a packed town hall meeting in Coupeville on Saturday that Washington state will build three additional ferries to replace aging vessels in the fleet.

Haugen, a 10th District Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the vessels would be partially built on South Whidbey, with each new vessel pumping about $10 million into the South End economy.

“We are going to build boats,” she said in a surprising announcement. The crowd of more than 130 people roared its approval.

Haugen said Monday that the money is included in the transportation budget for the next two bienniums, although Senate and House approval is still required.

“I expect the House will go along,” she said, “although I can’t speak for them. They’re working with the same dollars we are.”

Despite the economic downturn and an increasing deficit, the state has already committed to building one ferry for the Keystone-Port Townsend route that will carry 64 vehicles.

The Island Home-design vessel modified to accommodate shallow conditions on the run is being built by Todd Pacific Shipyards of Seattle, which will construct the hull, and Nichols Brothers.

The current and only bid on new ferries for the Keystone-Port Townsend run was submitted by Todd and Nichols Brothers; the price was $65.5 million for one ferry and $124.4 million for two.

Nichols Brothers is already doing design and pre-construction work on the new ferry. Delivery is expected in about a year.

Haugen said the three additional contracts would be put out to bid, but it’s likely Nichols Brothers and Todd would be in the driver’s seat because they’re already set up to do the job.

“You bet we’d love to have more of the work,” Nichols said. “It would create jobs and infuse money into the local community.”

He said there’s no doubt Todd and Nichols Brothers would continue to pursue additional contracts together; Todd building the hull, Nichols Brothers building most of the superstructure.

“We have a very good working relationship,” Nichols said, adding that Todd already is pushing more work on the first ferry Nichols Brothers’ way.

He agreed with Haugen that Todd and Nichols Brothers would be well positioned to get the new contract.

Officials have declared that all new state vessels must be built in-state. Nichols said only five companies, including Todd and Nichols Brothers, would qualify.

Haugen said two additional ferries would be constructed during the next budget biennium, and the fourth ferry in the following biennium.

She said that because building procedures would be in place, “we should be able to get a good price on that last one.”

She said the first two ferries would be assigned the Keystone-Port Townsend route, with the third likely deployed in South Puget Sound, and the fourth to an inter-island route in the north.

Haugen said previous ferry planning called for the building of two 64-car vessels, then moving on to replacement 144-car boats.

“But that would cost $163 million more,” she said. “We thought the four smaller ferries were the way to go at this time.”

The state Department of Transportation determined it needed new ferries for the Keystone-Port Townsend run after four 80-year-old Steel Electric vessels were pulled from service more than a year ago by Washington State Ferries because of safety concerns.

Haugen said she shares the frustration of islanders over the state of the ferry system, but said progress is being made.

“I’m excited that we’re finally building one ferry,” she said. “I only wish it could be done faster.”

But she said careful analysis and planning is beginning to pay off in a more streamlined and efficient ferry system. “We’re seeing the benefits of what we’re trying to achieve.”

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