Island coalition clamors for more ferry boats
by John Stang
The deck of a San Juan ferry shows its age. Credit: Minette Layne via Flickr (CC)
A coalition of Puget Sound ferry communities wants the state to build two extra 144-car boats beyond what is already budgeted for.
The Ferry Communities Partnership decided Saturday in Bremerton to lobby the state Legislature to:
- Allocate money to build the two extra ferries.
- Order in 2014 that the Washington State Ferries examine its boat-building bidding system, including whether these contracts should be limited to in-state shipyards.
- Pass a bill to set up a process and timetable for the ferry system to investigate major accidents and incidents. This stance was prompted by frustration at the slow pace that the ferry system has investigated an early November accident that melted a drive motor on the 188-car ferry Walla Walla.
The Ferry Communities Partnership is an advocacy coalition of ferry riders and local governments from the Puget Sound's islands and western shore. Roughly 20 people — including Reps. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, and Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard — attended Saturday from local governments and other groups from Kitsap County, San Juan County and Vashon Island.
Washington has the nation's largest ferry system, with 22 boats carrying 22 million people and 10 million vehicles a year among 20 terminals. Nine of those boats are between 40 and 65 years old, and are supposed to be replaced in the next 20 years. Vigor Shipyard is currently building a new 144-car ferry for $147 million and has a second one on the drawing board, which will supposedly cost less.
"I say it's a farce for the state to operate boats that are more than 40 years old," said partnership member Greg Beardsley of Vashon Island.
Vigor's contract with the state includes options to build third and fourth ferries. The conventional wisdom is that the first-constructed ferry will be the most expensive, because of the initial set-up costs plus due to lessons learned on the first vessel. The original cost estimated for the first ferry was $116 million, which expanded because of design modifications and other factors.
"I'd say go for seven boats, but bring that price down,” said partnership member Doug Rauh of Silverdale.
"We've got a massive fleet replacement problem bigger than that one [Vigor] contract," Sequist said.
The Senate and House transportation committees would have to find money for one or two extra 144-car ferries beyond the two currently approved in the state budget in order for this to happen. Their efforts would be complicated by last year's Washington state Supreme Court ruling that the state's schools are unconstitutionally underfunded. That ruling means the Legislature will have to find between $900 million and $1.375 billion in additional education funding during the upcoming session.
A strong push is being made to shift $250 – $300 million in school transportation costs from the state's main operating fund to the state's transportation fund, which would mean scrounging the extra money out of transportation revenues — the same place ferry construction money would come from.
Meanwhile, the partnership members wrestled with whether the Washington State Ferries should abandon the legal requirement that ferry construction be limited to in-state companies. Last week, the state auditor's office released a report that recommended allowing the ferry system to explore using out-of-state shipyards in the case of insufficient or too-expensive in-state boat construction bids — prompted by higher-than-expected costs in recent ferry construction contracts.
The situation has prompted tension between the ferry construction industry's economic boost to Washington's economy and concerns about too-high ferry costs. "Right now, we have no competition. We have no one competing against Vigor," Beardsley said.
Vigor was the lead contractor of a consortium that recently built three 64-car ferries. The state has three shipyard companies capable of building ferries on their own, and Washington could provide possibly four or five bidders if smaller shipyards join forces, speculated Gordon Baxter, lobbyist for the ferry workers' union.
The partnership decided to push for the ferry system to reexamine the need for the in-state requirement in 2014, noting that the earliest a new construction contract could materialize would be later this decade.
Seaquist also plans to introduce a bill in the upcoming session to set up a process and timetable for Washington State Ferries to investigate accidents — contending that the ferry system has been slow to sort out what caused the Walla Walla’s motor melt and does not have good investigative procedures in place. Seaquist believes that the ferry system's initial investigation into the incident was inadequate, and voiced frustration that no cause has yet been announced, roughly two months later. The ferry system, he said, has been reluctant to adopt a more formal investigation protocol.
"There's no procedures written for it," Baxter said. Beardsley complained that it took almost a week after the motor's meltdown before the ferry system issued a press release on the matter.
"We know we have a transparency problem with our ferries," agreed Angel.