Ferry godfathers: Two lawmakers want more oversight of Washington's fleet

House and senate bills seek to wrest control of vessel design from Washington State Ferries and put it in legislative hands.
A ferry crosses in front of Seattle's port and Washington's Mt. Rainier.

A ferry crosses in front of Seattle's port and Washington's Mt. Rainier. Curtis Cronn

Two ferry bills are racing the clock in Olympia this week. Both seek to wrest control of vessel design from the Washington State Ferries and give it to the legislature.

The clock ticks down at the end of Friday, when all non-budget bills must be out of committee — or die. Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, and Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, introduced identical ferry design bills late last week.

If HB 1180 and SB 5800 become law, any design of new ferries or major renovations to existing vessels would require the legislature's prior approval. The bills would not prevent ferry officials from buying new boats or contracting with outside firms to design them, once they receive parameters from the state.

Seaquist and Schlicher were moved to act by the high costs and design defects related to several recent ferry construction projects. Their legislation is intended, in part, to remove the ferry system’s current in-house design functions, Seaquist said. Neither bill would affect the state's current contract with Vigor Shipyards, which is building two and possibly three or four 144-car ferries. The legislation would, however, affect any future ferry construction contracts.

Seaquist said shipyards could provide cookie-cutter ferries, customize cookie-cutter vessels for Washington State service, even design new boats more efficiently than the state can. "This [legislation] will give us cheaper boats," he said.

Washington has the nation's largest ferry system. Its 22 boats carry 22 million people and 10 million vehicles each year. Nine boats are between 40 and 65 years old, and are supposed to be replaced in the next 20 years.

According to a 2013 report from the Washington State Auditor's Office, the vessels in Washington’s fleet "are among the most expensive ferries purchased in the past 20 years compared to the amounts spent by other U.S. ferry operators." The study compared the cost of Washington's 64-car Chetzemoka to the Massachusetts-based Island Home. The Chetzemoka is a carbon copy of the Island Home's design. Final pricetag (in 2011 dollars) was $87.3 million for the Chetzemoka, $48.5 million for the Island Home.

Both boats were the first of their class to be built in each state. Conventional wisdom has it that construction of subsequent vessels with the same design is cheaper. The Chetzemoka defied conventional wisdom. The auditor’s report blamed modifications during construction for the cost discrepancy between the two boats — at least $10 million in change orders for the Chetzemoka, compared to $624,000 for the Island Home. And the Chetzemoka leans. “Not very successful design work,” noted Schlicher.

Washington State Ferries has one 144-car boat under construction for $147 million. (The original estimate was $115.3 million and the state has already paid $136 million.) Another 144-car boat is awaiting construction, presumably at a lower cost. Two more 144-car boats are possibilities if the state can find the money.

The shipbuilder, Vigor, bought Todd Shipyards. A Todd official told Seaquist prior to the bidding for the 144-car vessels that Todd would add 30 percent to its bid to account for expected design change requests. The official said the first 144-car vessel will cost roughly $1 million per car slot. The industry standard is $500,000.

Schlicher is unhappy that the ferry system frequently looks at cutting routes to save money rather than trimming vessel construction costs. Meanwhile, Seaquist criticized the auditor office's report for failing to nail down higher-than-normal construction, design and fuel costs in enough detail to spur remedial measures. He criticized the report for not tracing how much money went into design and construction work, and is calling for a follow-up audit to tackle those issues.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

John Stang is a longtime Inland Northwest newspaper reporter who earned a Masters of Communications in Digital Media degree at the University of Washington. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.

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Posted Tue, Feb 19, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Stang, do your homework. No, the Chetzemoka is NOT a "carbon copy" of the Island Home's design. MANY modifications were made to fit WSF specs. Whether those were justified is another question, but simply doing an apples to apples comparison between the two vessels is wrong.

Posted Tue, Feb 19, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Ah! But exactly what were those changes (modifications)? We do know from former senator Mary Margaret Haugen that the excuse LTC gave for the huge price differential was that "Alabama did not have as strict environmental controls as Washington State" (or words to that effect). She apparently did not realize Alabama also falls under NEPA! To the outside observer, it would seem the cost differential is due to one major item - Alabama (non-union) vs. Washington (all union). And, as you all know, labor costs are the biggest concern.


Posted Tue, Feb 19, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

It's nice to see some genuinely useful and taxpayer-friendly legislation coming out of Olympia. Washington State Ferries definitely needs more supervision. It has been squandering money for decades.


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