When the Washington State Ferry System sold its four scrapped Steel Electric-class ferries this year, it lost money, and the state lost a possible business and environmental-enhancement opportunity. WSF sold them for $200,000, yet according to state documents the cost of keeping them around until the sale closed was over twice that amount, with $303,412 of it in insurance premiums alone. The sale came after a half-million-dollar-plus deal fell through when scrap metal prices dropped sharply. Another potential deal fell through when the prospective purchaser failed to secure adequate moorage facilities.
The lashed-together Quinault and Nisqually left on August 7 and were towed through Puget Sound to Ensenada, Mexico. The Klickitat and Illahee followed a week later. The vintage and classic ferries have a date with a welder’s torch at a recycling yard.
Pulled from service on Thanksgiving eve 2007 — a decision that WSF insiders in both the fleet and the engineering office still regard as being ill-advised — the boats had been sitting around ever since doing nothing but gathering rust, mostly at WSF’s Eagle Harbor maintenance facility on Bainbridge Island.
Passionately loved by crews and ferry patrons alike, the 256-foot Steel Electrics were built in 1927 for service in the Bay Area. They were purchased and brought to Puget Sound by the Black Ball Line, which was itself purchased by Washington state in the 1950s, becoming the foundation of Washington State Ferries. Replete with leaded-glass windows and wood trim, the boats plied the waters of Puget Sound for decades. Most notably they were reliable ferry mainstays between Keystone Harbor on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. Ultimately, they were stripped of everything that wasn’t welded to the deck as they awaited their fate.
It was an expensive wait. In addition to the insurance premiums, WSF paid nearly $15,000 in towing fees and $112,000 to conduct surveys on the level of environmentally-hazardous PCB materials on the vessels. That's a total bill, counting insurance, of $430,000.
Could they have been saved? It’s not as though there wasn’t a demand. Port Townsend wanted to use one as a tourist attraction, or perhaps convert it into shops and restaurants. The Washington Scuba Alliance had hopes of sinking one to create an artificial reef that would attract marine life and become a destination attraction for divers. Both proposals soon ran afoul of regulatory obstacles and official indifference.
According to Port Townsend City Manager David Timmons, neither the city nor the dive club even got to the point of doing a full cost/benefit analysis on purchasing a couple of the Steel Electrics. As far as the city was concerned, a combination of the regulatory morass and tidal and weather conditions unique to Port Townsend created too many obstacles, he said. Port Townsend couldn’t find a place to moor one of the ferries that wasn’t subject to frequent southerly winter storms and tidal conditions. Timmons also said it would have taken one full-time employee just to chip rust. Also, there were the environmental issues stemming from the Shoreline Management Act.
Relying on the successful experience since 1992 of creating artificial reefs in British Columbia where there are seven (including a Boeing 737 jet aircraft and a 441-foot Victory ship), the Washington Scuba Alliance suggested using one to create an underwater park that would attract divers from all across the United States and the world, said Mike Racine, president of the group and a retired software entrepreneur.
“There were only two uses for them: scrap metal or sunk as a dive park,” he added. Using the historic ferries to create a dive park made sense. “What a great way to give them a whole new life consistent with their maritime history.”
The Alliance’s hopes were dashed, however, when they tried to convince state agencies in Olympia of the merits and economic benefits of an artificial reef. Instead of embracing the idea, Racine said, state officials lacked the vision to see the possibilities and the benefits of the artificial-reef idea. “There are few people within state government who have an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. He did credit WSF for being open to the idea, but noted that the agency was under a legislatively-mandated obligation to sell the boats.
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