Nichols jobs depend on another ferry

Eighty to 100 jobs on South Whidbey are riding on the outcome of a transportation bill still up in the air as the Washington State Legislature prepares for its special session beginning Monday, May 13.

Eighty to 100 jobs on South Whidbey are riding on the outcome of a transportation bill still up in the air as the Washington State Legislature prepares for its special session beginning Monday, May 13.

Matt Nichols, CEO of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland, is anxious to see the third of a proposed four Olympic Class 144-passenger ferries funded.

Nichols Bros. builds superstructures for the ferries under subcontract to Vigor Shipyards in Seattle. The first, the Tokitae, left the Nichols yard this spring. Nichols said the second, named the Samish, is in progress.

The third boat in the class is uncertain. “We need the third ferry,” Nichols said, noting it would replace a 60-year-old vessel in the ferry system. “We’re well into the second 144-car ferry now, we’ve got the assembly line going, it won’t get any cheaper.”

A report by Judy Goldenberg, of Washington State Ferries communications, stated the cost of the Tokitae is $146.9 million and total cost of the Samish is expected to be $132.5 million. “Economies of scale reduce the cost of the second vessel,” she wrote. Nichols believes the same factors will lead to the third vessel costing less, as long as assembly lines can be kept going.

The Island County Economic Development Council is in Nichols’ corner, as Ron Nelson, executive  director, said the jobs at Nichols Bros. support 370 other jobs in the economy and have a impact on the local economy. “Building another 144 is the right choice,” he said.

Most agree that funding for the third 144-car ferry will require a tax increase. The most talked about vehicle for a tax increase is House Bill 1954 which passed the House Transportation Committee under Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, in the regular session. But it still awaits action by the full House, Senate Transportation Committee and full Senate.

“It’s not a sure thing,” David Moseley, state Department of Transportation assistant director in charge of ferries, told The Record this week. The bill would increase revenues with a host of taxes and fees, the most controversial being a 10 cent per gallon gas tax raised in increments over three years.

Norma Smith, R-Clinton, doesn’t see the House Transportation bill skating through the rest of the process. She expressed concern about high “mega project” construction costs in this state and said the tax could rise to 13 cents a gallon, not the 10 cents talked about.

“I’m hopeful we can find a solution for the 144 (car ferry),” she said. “We need to find a solution, but we need reform.” 

Moseley said the Legislature could adopt some other kind of tax package in the special session, but he sees HB 1954 as the framework. “If there’s a new revenue package that bill will be the vehicle for that package,” he said. “Without it, we wouldn’t have the money to build a third 144 (car ferry). There would be an interruption in production.”

Moseley wouldn’t make any predictions regarding the outcome of the special session. “Raising revenue is a tough proposition in the best of times,” he said. “We’re thankful this package (HB 1954) passed committee but it’s got a long way to go. But this is my sixth session of the Legislature and this is the furthest we’ve gotten them to take the ferry system financially.”

A business-oriented ferry lobbying group, the Washington Ferry Coalition, is geared up for the special session.

Brad Jurkovich, executive director, agreed additional funding is needed for a third boat, a project tied in with other mega transportation goals, such as a new bridge over the Columbia River.

“For the third boat we’ll need new funding,” he said, pointing to the proposed 10 cent gasoline tax in HB 1954 as a likely source. “It’d be included in that package and the governor wants it badly,” he said. “We’re trying to get the legislators to do that.

“It’s a big piece of work for Whidbey Island and we need to keep Nichols working. We need it as cheap as possible and Nichols does a great job with the piece they do.”

A big question mark in the process is Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, who is part of the controlling coalition in the Senate. She’s generally against tax increases, though she did not return a couple of calls to The Record.

“Her support is critical,” Jurkovich said. However, he said the special session might come up with some other way to pay for the third ferry. “Even if it’s not the gas tax we just want it funded,” he said.