Kalakala owner sues Washington state

He seeks compensation for "negligence" and "mental anguish" because state has failed to preserve and fund the historic ferry.
Crosscut archive image.

The Kalakala in January 2012.

He seeks compensation for "negligence" and "mental anguish" because state has failed to preserve and fund the historic ferry.

Steve Rodrigues, owner of the troubled maritime landmark ferry, the Kalakala, is suing state of Washington agencies and others claiming that they have failed in their "duty" to help preserve the historic 1930s-era Art Deco ferry, and that "accrued state and federal statutory negligence" has inflicted physical harm to the ferry and "mental anguish" on Rodrigues. He claims the state especially had thwarted his efforts to preserve the boat.

The suit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court on Monday (July 23), lists the Washington State Department of Transportation, Washington State Ferries, the Washington State Historic Preservation Office, Tacoma Industrial Properties, and Karl Anderson of Tacoma as defendants. Anderson is the Kalakala's landlord and had previously filed suit in March to evict the Kalakala from its moorage for non-payment of back fees and penalties, according to a story in Tacoma's News-Tribune.

The Kalakala is in deteriorating condition and is currently sited on Tacoma's Hylebos Waterway; it is considered a serious potential hazard to navigation by the U.S. Coast Guard. A new mooring system was recently installed to secure the boat. The cost of scrapping it is more than anyone wants to pay.

The ferry has had a number of homes since it was salvaged in Alaska in the 1990s. Various schemes have been proposed to save it and ensconce it as a waterfront attraction from Neah Bay to Port Angeles, Seattle to Tacoma. None of Rodrigues' ideas for saving the ferry have jelled. Given its precarious status and condition, the Kalakala made my 2012 Heritage Turkey list on Crosscut.

If the boat isn't going anywhere physically for now, the Silver Slug is charting a continuing course through the courts, financial woes, and unfulfilled dreams.

The sweeping lawsuit accuses the state of mishandling opportunities to save and restore the Kalakala over the years. It also accuses the ferry system of having failed to protect its historic fleet, including the recent retirement and selling off of the old "steel electric" ferries.

Rodrigues' suit asks that the defendants be prevented from forcing the Kalakala to be moved, confiscated, or sunk; he seeks tens of millions of dollars in "losses" of potential funds to restore the Kalakala, apparently to compensate for the state's failure to protect other historic ferries and to acknowledge the vessel's national significance, and to force the state to pay approximately $50 million for restoration of the ferry under a proposal Rodrigues previously submitted, which was rejected.

Rodrigues concludes by saying, "We pray for any intangible heritage, cultural, social and other past and future human economic estimated project losses that would have become part of the future 21st century Kalakala projects."

An assistant attorney general representing the state's Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation said she had just received the complaint and could not yet comment on it.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.