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    State's newest ferries are proving pricey

    The ferries were bought at a high price and have some odd characteristics: the tendency to list, the engines that seem to waste fuel, and tight quarters for vehicles. They are very comfortable, but the state is looking at a potentially bleak future for ferry service finances. Updated: The ferry system has provided a statement about an award given to the new ferries.

    Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka.

    Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka. Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)

    As it floats into dock, the Chetzemoka, one of three new boats in the Washington State Ferries fleet, presents an unusual, asymmetrical image. The designers placed the tower structure, which houses the elevators, stacks and staircases, off to one side.

    The Chetzemoka, and its sister ships Kennewick and Salish, have also gained a certain fame as the only ships in the fleet that list.

    All three boats, designed to hold 64 vehicles, have now been delivered to WSF, although the newest, the Kennewick, has not yet entered rservice. With the Kennewick undergoing its final, get-the-bugs-out sea trials, those around the ferry system, including riders, are continuing to assess various aspects of the vessel replacement program.

    The new vessels' introduction acquired a new, unsettling context earlier this month, when Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond, in a presentation to the Legislature's transportation committees, indicated that five ferry routes would have to be eliminated altogether in the absence of further transfers from the state's Motor Vehicle Fund, which has propped up ferry operations for more than a decade. The five routes include both of those which the three new craft will regularly serve.

    Tongues firmly in cheek, ferry users have christened the class of ships the “I Leans” (or “Eileens,” if one prefers). Puns aside, the I Lean moniker also rolls off the tongue a lot easier than does the class's official designation, the Kwa-di Tabils (pronounced “kwah DEE tah-bail” and, meaning,  “little boat”).

    Loading a mildly listing boat is, quite literally, a balancing act, although not one at all beyond the capabilities of professionals. When the listing attracted some attention after the Chetzemoka's 2010 introduction, the ferry system said the ships don't list when fully loaded and pointed out they have passed U.S. Coast Guard stability tests.

    The Chetzemoka heels by two to three degrees when it is unloaded and the fuel tanks are close to empty — less if the tanks are full, according to Capt. Mark Haupt, the ferry system's lead master for the new boats. Based on that statement, trigonometric calculation indicates that the low side thus rides as much as 40 inches closer to the water than the high side, but ferry personnel put the differential at much less than that. 

    Washington State Ferries (WSF) are forced to load cars asymmetrically, beginning on the high side of the boat, to promote balance rather than disturb it further. A partially full boat thus presents the unlikely sight of having all its vehicles on that side, with the other side empty.

    A state legislator familiar with the ferry replacement program said he's observed challenges for crews trying to load the boats. “They've got this little jigsaw puzzle every time they load the boat,” said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, about the crew's perplexity on the Port Townsend-Keystone (Coupeville) route, for which the new boats are primarily intended. Seaquist, a retired Navy warship captain, has traveled that route on the Chetzemoka; he told Crosscut that he had to spend the passage inside his car, because the crew had him park up against the tower, leaving his vehicle so little clearance that he couldn't get out.

    The deck's lanes, in other words, are pretty narrow.

    The operating demands increase if the Chetzemoka, or either of its sister ships, happens to be on the San Juans' interisland route, where the Chetzemoka was recently pinch-hitting as part of adjustments made to allow unscheduled repairs of the Yakima. Because boats on the zigzagging island route board some vehicles in a direction opposite to their eventual direction of discharge, vehicles turn around inside the boat. Only small vehicles can make the turn aboard a Kwa-di Tabil ferry with any ease, however, because its cramped design offers only a limited turning radius for anything larger.

    On the other hand, the Kwa-di Tabils were built for the point-to-point Port Townsend service, where the difficulty in turning around means nothing, since all vehicles exit in the same direction that they board. The feature simply makes the vessels less flexible — a hassle when cascading substitutions affect the San Juans, as has happened more than once.

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    Posted Thu, Jan 26, 8:19 a.m. Inappropriate

    So we get three boats that are aesthetically displeasing, difficult to load, overpowered and inefficient, vastly overpriced, and the ferry system is broke. All of the above to satisfy state requirements that are essentially union giveaways.

    Who here would spend their own money in such fashion, or a pool of your family members and neighbor’s monies? When a purchasing system is so hamstrung it cannot seek 2-3 competitive bids it is no wonder the state is in crisis.


    Posted Thu, Jan 26, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    I'm not particularly bent out of shape about the ferries' cost. Having them built in Washington has a multiplier effect on the economy here.

    It is somewhat disquieting about their performance, though the passenger comfort means the Ferry System was listening to the regular riders' input.

    When all is said and done, however, it's important to remember the history here.

    When one of the existing boats showed up with hull cracks and its sister ships didn't look too good either, the governor made the decision to act quickly and decisively and make sure the Pt. Townsend-Whidbey route wasn't left, so to speak, high and dry. Our tendency to study everything ad infinitum and consider every possible stakeholder doesn't lend itself to cracked hulls.


    Posted Thu, Jan 26, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    Why is the ferry listing? Gregoire has one side loaded with plundered gold bullion which she will escape the state with when her term is up.

    The fix to levelling the ferry? Seattle Art Museum has a bunch of Ford Tauruses hung up on the ceiling. Weld a forty foot steel fishing rod to the high side of the ferry and hang a taurus off a piece of cable to balance out the boat.

    Posted Thu, Jan 26, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

    Excellent, detailed reporting here by C.B. Hall. A couple of further personal observations: As a boatbuilder myself (of much smaller boats), I'm acutely conscious of space utilization and efficiency. Every time I ride the Chetzemoka I marvel at its lavish acres of incoherent wasted space. It looks like half a dozen different people designed sections of the boat without talking to each other.

    The minor asymmetry in the design doesn't bother me. Overall, though, the Kwa-di Tabil class is very far from beautiful. So are all the other current designs in the WSF stable. It's asking a lot to make a working boat like a ferry or freighter beautiful, but I believe we should ask. Insist, actually. An ugly boat is an affront to nature and maritime tradition.

    Finally, the excess power probably doesn't hurt fuel efficiency much. The displacement (weight) and hull shape are the most important factors. And extra reserve power is a safety factor when conditions turn seriously nasty.

    Posted Thu, Jan 26, 9:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    Keep in mind that Rep. Seaquist is constantly out campaigning for another Washington shipyard, so his "expert" opinions may well be significantly biased.

    And to those who would prefer to "save money" by having the boats built, say in Mississippi, don't forget to calculate the significant loss of that spending's impact on the Washington economy, and for Washington workers and Washington families. I wonder, would you extend the same thought for having Boeing planes built more cheaply in South Carolina?

    Posted Thu, Jan 26, 10:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    It's too bad they picked a "proven to list" design!

    As for the extra power, http://www.pbase.com/trackside_photography/image/87518046 And if you were on that boat, you'd be glad they had it.

    While the extra weight of the engines could be affecting fuel consumption it's much more likely to be the shape of the hull and the amount of drag as well as the speed they run the boats at.


    Posted Thu, Jan 26, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thank you, Larry Cheek for expert insight. I'm confident everything you say is right on point.

    After decades of state ownership, the WSF and its vessel construction program has been transformed into a union grab-bag. In-state requirements, apprentice programs -- all ready-made sops crafted by an unchallenged Democrat legislature.

    Watch for bicycle-only ferries to make an appearance in the next few years.

    I miss the Steel Electrics and the Rhododendron. They were the last of the vessels Captain Peabody acquired before the state drove him out of business.

    Ever since, with the Supers then Jumbos and the Issaquahs (the latter were derisively called 'the citrus fleet') the scramble by contractors for profits and favors to boat-building interests have shaped this system.

    Like we've learned with Sound Transit, the system doesn't exist for riders, but instead for contractors and their associated architects, suppliers, consultants and hangers-on. The riders are the last people served. By the time they step aboard, everyone else has already cashed their checks.

    Posted Thu, Feb 2, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

    Have you actually been on the new baby ferries? They are ridiculous. Only WSF could actually make a brand new ferry ... look as old as the Steel Electrics they pulled from service in 2007.

    These ferries have a terrible "floor plan". Parking is tight for cars, but the pedestrian areas are HUGE, far too large for the number of people that will ever ride one of the ferries. And bikes are king, even though the runs where the ferries are serve business people in their vehicles, and other people too busy, too old, travelling with kids or elders, or have too much to carry to ride a bike.

    The needs of real people, ie: taxpayers, are not being served.

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