Car ferry finally returns to Keystone

After a wait of more than two months, cars are again heading from Keystone to Port Townsend.

The Steilacoom II, the Pierce County-owned vessel leased by Washington State Ferries, wrapped up a week’s worth of training cruises and will start transporting cars across Admiralty Inlet beginning this morning, Feb. 9.

The Steilacoom II, which can hold 50 cars and 300 passengers, returns a service to the run that has been missing since late November when transportation officials decided to pull the old Steel Electrics from service due to corrosion on the vessels’ hulls.

Some who toured the Steilacoom Friday afternoon during a media event hope the vessel will provide a successful stop-gap solution until a different vessel is found or built.

“I think it will meet our short-term needs,” said Bob Clay, Coupeville Town Council member who sits on the Ferry Partnership Committee. He said the group will endorse boats that are a bit larger to serve the Port Townsend Keystone run.

Clay’s sentiments were seconded by Sarah Richards, president of Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce.

She pointed out that the other ferry design being considered has a similar footprint to the Steel Electrics and is based on the boat currently operating on the East Coast.

Richards was realistic regarding how long it will take for new vessels to come to Keystone.

“We’re all going to be suffering for a couple of years until an adequate solution is found,” Richards said.

The ferry system took possession of the Steilacoom II three weeks ago. Washington State Ferries is spending $760,000 to lease the vessel from Pierce County for the next 12 to 14 months. Workers spent the past two weeks making safety improvements. Boat crews have been working since Monday familiarizing themselves with the vessel and how it handles across the inlet, which proves the roughest water in all of Puget Sound.

“We want to ensure the highest standards of safety for our customers,” said Capt. Mark Haupt of Washington State Ferries. He said the vessel’s open design, lack of vertical plating and the hull shape combine to raise concerns about the vessel. On the plus side, the boat is as fast, has more power and is more maneuverable than the Steel Electrics.

There also will be instances where water will wash up on the deck and splash over cars. During such times, people must leave their cars and venture up to the passenger deck.

Washington State Ferries held a tour of the Steilacoom II Friday afternoon for legislators, transportation officials and members of the media. The vessel rocked side to side a bit more than the old Steel Electrics.

Haupt compared the Steilacoom II to the old Rhododendron when it operated on the ferry route. He said that crews will always keep an eye on the weather before deciding to cross the channel.

“We’re going to make as many trips as we possibly can, only we’re going to be safe,” Haupt said.

In addition to the tour, there was also a Port Townsend Keystone Ferry Partnership meeting held Friday morning. Ferry officials presented a report on the status of the Steilacoom II to a skeptical crowd comprised of residents of Port Townsend and Whidbey Island. Many of the Port Townsend residents had seen the bouncy training trips of the car ferry and they weren’t convinced it was up to the job.

“Anyone can see the Steilacoom is not adequate for this run,” said Port Townsend resident Mitch Poling. He favored spending money on repairing the Steel Electrics.

Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond said it would have cost approximately $8 million to repair the Quinault and investigations revealed similar problems on other Steel Electrics, which are over 80-years-old.

“Financing made it so it wasn’t a prudent investment,” she said.

The meeting also touched upon mitigation for both communities during the busy summer months. For Whidbey Island, business leaders would like to see a public awareness campaign advertising the ferry is in service for car passengers; develop a separate Keystone route guide that includes ferry and transit route information; provide money to coordinate Island Transit and ferry schedules; include Keystone on any future ferry routes that link Port Townsend and Seattle; and operate a passenger ferry in addition to the car ferry during the 2008 tourist season.

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