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Serving ferry riders takes priority over minor cosmetic work

A rusting ferry gathers a Mossback's attention. Credit: Carol Poole

We at the Washington State Department of Transportation share Mossback's frustration about the appearance of some of the Washington State Ferries vessels, as expressed in the recent column “Paging Jay Inslee: What's with the rusting ferries?” The governor asked me to personally respond.

WSF’s fleet of 22 vessels carries more than 22 million riders on about 160,000 annual trips. More than 96 percent of those trips are completed on time. As Mossback — Knute Berger — points out in his column, a robust vessel maintenance and preservation program is critical to maintaining our impressive service record, ensuring the safety of the traveling public and combating impacts of constant exposure to salt water.

The average age of our vessels is 34 years old and the oldest was built in 1954. These aging ferries need constant maintenance and preservation to keep them operating safely and reliably and to maintain their U.S. Coast Guard certification.

Like any business or family on a tight budget, we too have to make decisions to sometimes delay expenses to address an unplanned event. Our focus is on keeping the vessels running, which means that occasionally cosmetic or less-urgent maintenance, such as painting, must be deferred. For example, in early May, we learned that a 47-year-old drive motor on the Super Class vessel Yakima needs refurbishment and it will require four months of repairs. To maintain service system wide, WSF shuffled vessels between routes and deferred a scheduled paint job on the Cathlamet.

Will this vessel show some peeling paint? Perhaps. But, millions of customers will avoid service disruptions and delays this summer. With no spare vessels in the fleet, it becomes a juggling act to cycle vessels in and out of the shipyard for required annual inspections as well as routine and unscheduled work.

The topsides of our vessels are painted every eight to 10 years. For a Jumbo Mark II ferry like the 202-car Tacoma that Mossback rode, a paint job costs more than $7 million dollars and takes up to four months during which the vessel is out of service. Right now, there is only one shipyard in Puget Sound that can paint a vessel this size, so we must carefully plan this work to make the best use of our resources. The Tacoma is scheduled for a paint job in spring 2015 and we can’t wait to see her looking shipshape, but in the meantime we’re thankful for her steady service on the Seattle-Bainbridge route, where she makes nearly 700 trips each month.

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