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Legislature funds ferries for Keystone

By May 2009, there should be a new ferry hauling cars and passengers out of Keystone Harbor.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill Thursday authorizing construction of up to three new passenger ferries capable of being used on the Port Townsend/Keystone route.

The size and capabilities of all three vessels is unknown at this time, as various options are being considered.

One thing’s for sure: The first vessel will be based on the Steilacoom II model, which is owned by Pierce County and is now temporarily serving the Port Townsend/Keystone route.

While the relatively small ferry is adept at maneuvering in and out of narrow Keystone Harbor, some leaders question whether the boat is adequate for the tempestuous seas on the route.

“I think it’s a great little boat, but I think it’s going to be sloppy in the water,” State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and the bill’s sponsor, said Wednesday. “But I think it’s going to be a great boat for our fleet.”

Tenth District Reps. Barbara Bailey and Norma Smith also supported the legislation to build the three ferries.

Senate Bill 6794 requires the construction of up to three ferries that will hold a maximum of 100 vehicles each. The current Steilacoom II can carry approximately 50 cars and 300 passengers. The ferry is hampered by weight limits. If the ferry hits its weight limit, it will sail regardless of how many vehicles are on board.

Traci Brewer Rogstad, deputy director for Washington State Ferries, said the legislation gives the option of purchasing between one and three ferries depending on the direction the Legislature gives the ferry system about further replacement boats. She said she would like the Legislature to make up its mind by the time the session ends.

One other vessel design that is under consideration is the Island Home, which is currently operating in Massachusetts. That vessel has the capacity to hold 76 vehicles and 1,200 passengers, which is considerably larger than the Steilacoom II. The boat was designed by a Seattle firm.

The idea for building an Island Home-type ferry stems from a vessel planning study the ferry system conducted last year. It identified the vessel operated by the Nantucket Steamship Company as a possible replacement.

Some state officials are so impressed with the Island Home that a ferry captain and chief engineer who have operated the Steel Electrics were sent to Massachusetts to get a first-hand look.

Haugen said in a news release that she recommended that the bill not lock the system into a specific ferry design. She supports the idea that personnel with direct experience on the Keystone route examine the Island Home.

There are several advantages to each of the vessels being considered as permanent replacements.

The Steilacoom II, while smaller and less powerful than the Island Home, can be built in a year and early estimates show it would cost $20 million per boat.

The Island Home has more power and more capacity for passengers and vehicles. However, the ferry would take between 18 and 24 months to build and cost between $30 million and $36 million.

Brewer-Rogstad said if the Legislature is willing to wait longer and spend more money, then the Island Home design is a viable option.

Washington State Ferries started advertising for bids for a new Steilacoom II vessel Friday. Bids are due by March 18. Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland built the Steilacoom II and is expected to be among the bidders.

The ferry system plans to award a bid by March 24. Construction should be complete by March 2009 and the boat ready to serve the Keystone/Port Townsend route the following May.

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