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3-week wait for car ferry

If all goes according to plan, in three weeks a car ferry will again be sailing out of Keystone Harbor.

Washington State Ferries was due to take possession of the Steilacoom II, which is operated by Pierce County, Friday afternoon.

Workers will now spend the next couple of weeks modifying the vessel. Crews will also have to be trained and then discover how the vessel handles through the narrow and challenging Keystone Harbor.

The Steilacoom II is a 216-foot vessel that can hold approximately 50 cars and approximately 325 passengers. It isn’t as large as the Steel Electrics, which could hold approximately 64 vehicles and 617 passengers.

Ferry officials had hoped to have car ferry service restored by the end of January. Plans changed because Pierce County wanted to make sure its remaining ferry, the Christine Anderson, was in top shape, said Marta Coursey, spokeswoman for Washington State Ferries.

Workers will be spending the next two weeks installing communications and safety equipment. The ferry system also has to perform a risk assessment analysis required by the United States Coast Guard as well as sea trials for the vessel, said Steve Rodgers, director of Marine Operations for Washington State Ferries, on Thursday.

The Steilacoom II will return car ferry service to Central Whidbey that has been missing since late November when the 80-year-old Steel Electrics were pulled from service because of safety concerns. Those antiquated vessels were the only ones in the ferry system capable of maneuvering in and out of Keystone Harbor. The conditions have several times caused ferries to hit bottom when navigating through the harbor.

Rodgers is confident that the Steilacoom II can maneuver on the route, but there may be instances where the currents and wind conditions could force cancellations at a higher percentage than the Steel Electrics.

On the positive side, because the Steilacoom II has a lower draft, he’s hopeful that the route could see fewer cancellations due to low tide conditions.

Another concern people may have while traveling on the vessel will be the saltwater spray that could wash onto people’s cars during voyages.

The ferry system has leased the ferry from Pierce County for the next 16 months. Rodgers said he doesn’t know how much that will cost because terms of the lease hasn’t been settled yet. He said he hopes the ferry system will be able to lease the boat for a longer period of time after the first replacement ferry is built. The Legislature supposedly will put that project on the front burner. That way there would be two boats available for the route.

In the months since the Steel Electrics were pulled, the Keystone route has been served by several passenger-only ferries. Currently, the Snohomish is working the route. However, delays have been caused by severe weather conditions and debris getting lodged in the boat’s waterjets.

The ferry system contracted with Puget Sound Express to provide passenger service through most of December and the company currently provides boats to back up the Snohomish.

In addition to having a vessel that will restore car ferry service to Keystone, the Steilacoom II will also give officials a glimpse at how well such a ferry could handle the run across Admiralty Inlet.

Plans for the replacement show a vessel something similar to the Steilacoom II but modified to better handle conditions in the northern part of the Puget Sound, Rodgers said.

If the run proves too difficult for the Steilacoom II, then officials would know about it before building a similar boat.

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