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UPDATE: Keystone ferry plans in disarray

Leaders from Washington State Ferries are asking Pierce County for a month-to-month extension for the Steilacoom II, which currently serves the Port Townsend-to-Keystone ferry route.

The lease the ferry system has with Pierce County expires Aug. 31. The extension is needed because a vibration issue in the newly completed Chetzemoka prompted ferry officials to delay its Aug. 29 start date.

Washington State Ferries has been leasing the 50-car Steilacoom II since January 2008, soon after the old Steel Electric ferries were removed from service because of safety issues.

In an email to the Whidbey News-Times, ferry system spokesperson Marta Coursey said the state may request a month-to-month extension of the Steilacoom II through Oct. 31.

Since August 2009, the ferry system has been paying Pierce County approximately $68,000 a month to lease the Steilacoom II, or a total of $850,000 to lease the ferry from January 2008 to August 2009.

Michael Esher, airports and ferries administrator for Pierce County, said he’s verbally agreed to the lease extension for the Steillacoom II. Pierce County has been down to a single ferry since January 2008. The ferries connect motorists from Steillacoom to Ketron and Anderson islands. He said having only one vessel presents difficulties during the busy summer months and holiday seasons. When its other ferry, the Christine Anderson, has to be pulled from service for maintenance, the Washington State Ferries provides a temporary replacement vessel.

The ferry system announced late Wednesday afternoon that the inaugural sailing of the Chetzemoka would be delayed because of excessive vibration found in its drive line.

The news of the delay comes as leaders on Whidbey Island eagerly wait for the Chetzemoka’s arrival.

“This is what sea trials are for,” Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said. “We’re so close to having a ferry. It will get resolved and we will have a ferry in service.”

Linda Eccles, executive director for the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce, expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s very unfortunate, but that’s why they have sea trials,” Eccles said. She said a group helping plan for the inaugural sailing ceremony would meet with ferry officials Friday to discuss a new ceremony date.

A crew from the vessel’s builder, Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle, is currently manning the vessel through another round of sea trails taking place this week east of Vashon Island.

“We’re looking forward to getting the boat in service and the celebration event just as much as the communities served on this route, and we recognize this delay may be disappointing,” Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said in a news release. “But we must be certain we have a safe and fully operational vessel.”

The $65.5 million Chetzemoka is the first of three 64-car ferries being built for the ferry system. The Chetzemoka’s engines were originally intended for larger, 144-car ferries. However, its engines are the exact size of the engines in the Island Home, a Massachusetts ferry that is similar in design to the Chetzemoka, Coursey said.

The next two vessels, the Salish and the Kennewick, are scheduled to be completed in the next two years. The Salish is due to begin service in the summer of 2011 and will primarily serve the Port Townsend-to-Keystone route during busy months, while the Kennewick will be finished in the spring of 2012 and is slated for the Point Defiance- to-Tahlequah route.

The delay of the Chetzemoka’s inaugural sailing comes as the name of the Keystone ferry terminal will change to Coupeville. Coursey said the ferry system will announce the name change with the printing of the fall 2010 sailing schedule.

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