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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.

    (Page 2 of 3)

    Once up in the cabin, however, passengers find themselves aboard a most comfortable ship. The ride is smooth and extremely quiet. Passengers can circulate on no fewer than three decks — the lowest one being a mezzanine level with side-facing windows that occupies the space devoted to the mezzanine car-decks on other WSF vessels. A complex architecture of staircases and seating areas beckons to those who want to wander about, have a game of hide-and-seek, or just plain get lost.

    Seattle's Elliott Bay Design Group drafted the new boat class's plans on the basis of a design the group had done for a Massachusetts ferry authority, for service between Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. That asymmetrical boat, the Island Home, lists no more than a degree, according to Haupt, who has ridden the vessel.

    John Waterhouse, chief conceptual engineer at Elliott Bay, defended the boats' design in a telephone interview. “This is a design that the state went out and found,” he said, with officials having in view a very tight time frame imposed on the construction. “If the state had had the time to design a boat from scratch, it would have been a different design.” He declined to speculate on how the design might have changed, but added that WSF decision-makers, as “prudent stewards of our taxpayers' dollars,” wanted to save money by using a proven design.

    Update: After the original publication of this article, Washington State Ferries provided an additional statement about the new ferries:

    The Kwa-di Tabil vessels were named Significant Boats of 2011 by U.S. maritime industry publication WorkBoat Magazine. WorkBoat magazine editors said the industry considers the Chetzemoka, Salish and Kennewick significant because they are the first new boats for WSF in more than a decade and represent a much-needed vessel upgrade for the Port Townsend/Coupeville route. The boats are also distinctive in design, both inside and out, compared to the other ferries in the WSF fleet.

    In a sense, what WSF has is the Island Home (which received praise on the Seattle Transit Blog during the state decision making) with some additions and subtractions. The add-ons include a surprise for bicyclists using the boats. In contrast to the long-established practice of tying off bikes with a hunk of rope on the car deck, the regime on the Kwa-di Tabils has been to lug one's wheels up a ramp to the mezzanine, where they can be parked in bonafide bike racks and kept in view, if one chooses, from a seat nearby. The schlep is no big deal, although, on his recent test run on the Chetzemoka, this reporter, who had his own cycle along, overheard a couple of fellow travelers complaining about the matter.

    Waterhouse explained that the feature grew out of a request submitted by the Cascade Bicycle Club during the planning phase. He described the club as seeking “better bicycle stowage and access.” He pointed out that a horde of touring bicycles can take up a good bit of room on the car deck, which some would view as compromising their own motor-vehicle access to the ferries. The system has to accommodate all constituencies. A call to the bicycle club seeking comment was not returned. WSF spokeswoman Marta Coursey told Crosscut that “tie-off ropes are being added to the vehicle deck.” 

    Rep. Seaquist said the new boats were using more fuel than other boats, and thus driving up operating expenses. Critics say the 6,000-horsepower engines exceed the need, but WSF happened to have them warehoused. Seaquist noted that the listing profile in itself worsened the ships' hydrodynamics, causing it to consume extra fuel.

    It was not immediately possible to quantify the three boats' burn rate relative to other WSF ships, however, since figures are not available for Kwa-di Tabils and alternative ship classes plying the same route and subject to the same conditions. One of the new boats, which have been found to use 75 gallons of fuel hourly on the Port Townsend route, is however moving to take over the Tahlequah-Point Defiance run, where the Rhododendron currently sails, consuming 30 gallons of fuel hourly.

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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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