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Car ferry arrives Monday for tests

Starting Monday, ferry officials will get an idea whether the long-awaited boat tapped to serve automobiles on the Keystone/Port Townsend ferry route is capable of doing the job.

The Steilacoom II, a comparatively small vessel, will start its training cruises Feb. 4. The training will last about a week so crew can familiarize themselves with the vessel and see how well it handles a route that often experiences cancellations due to extreme tides and weather conditions.

“It’s a boat that we haven’t used on that route before,” said Marta Coursey, spokesperson for Washington State Ferries.

Officials estimate it will take one week to learn if the vessel is capable of handling the route. The Coast Guard also has to inspect the boat before it can make the run loaded with cars and passengers across Admiralty Inlet.

A date hasn’t been set yet for when the ferry will start accepting passengers and vehicles.

The Steilacoom II is a one-year-old vessel, owned by Pierce County, that the ferry system is renting to use at Keystone. As of press time, officials were still finalizing terms of the lease. Estimates indicate that it will cost the ferry system $42,000 a day to lease the boat.

Current plans in Olympia call for designing the replacement car ferry based on the Steilacoom II, which was built by Nichols Brothers in Freeland. The training time will give officials a chance to see how it reacts on the route.

Until late November, the four, 80-year-old Steel Electric vessels were the only ones in the ferry system’s fleet capable of navigating the route. They were pulled from service due to safety concerns. They held about 75 vehicles compared to the 54 capacity of the Steilacoom II.

Meanwhile, legislation to build new boats continues moving through the state legislature.

Senate Bill 6794 requires the construction of at least one ferry to serve routes such as Keystone that require a vehicle capacity of 100 or fewer. Larger boats don’t fit into Keystone Harbor.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, doesn’t designate a specific vessel design and the actual number of vessels to be ordered. That will be finalized once ferry officials evaluate the performance of the Steilacoom on the Keystone route.

Several local business leaders have expressed concerns about the little boat’s ability to navigate the route during the winter weather.

“Some people think the Steilacoom II design isn’t perfect for this route because of its small size, but they forget about the benefits if its shallow draft — I think any sailings we cancel because of rough weather might be made up for with fewer cancellations due to low tides,” Haugen said.

She added that the legislative process is designed to take time but she is working with colleagues to expedite the process. Testimony on the bill took place Monday and it was passed out of committee Tuesday.

Haugen negated a move by the ferry system Friday to again switch passenger boats on the Keystone route.

An announcement stated the Puget Sound Express from the Hudson Point Marine in Port Townsend would be returned to the route and the Snohomish removed. The idea was that the Steilacoom II and the retired ferry Klickitat would be using the only two slips at the Port Townsend ferry dock.

Haugen hit the roof when she heard of that plan. “I said ‘you’re not doing that,’” she told the News-Times Friday afternoon. “It was ridiculous, they’re still doing all this stuff and not telling us what they’re doing.” Instead, the Kittitas will be towed to another moorage site, allowing the larger, faster, Snohomish to continue serving Whidbey Island and Port Townsend.

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