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Ferry bidding delayed again

The Steilacoom II bounces across waves as it nears its Keystone Harbor destination Friday morning. Later the route was temporarily suspended due to the conditions, which has been a common occurrence in recent days. - Jim Larsen / Whidbey News-Times
The Steilacoom II bounces across waves as it nears its Keystone Harbor destination Friday morning. Later the route was temporarily suspended due to the conditions, which has been a common occurrence in recent days.
— image credit: Jim Larsen / Whidbey News-Times

The ferry system is moving forward with plans to build a new ferry modeled after the Steilacoom II design but there’s been another delay in the bidding process.

The project was supposed to go out to bid for the second time this week, however, it has been stalled for at least a week as ferry staff analyze why the previous bid came in $9 million more than estimated, said Marta Coursey, communications director.

Meanwhile, despite several tide and weather-related cancellations in recent days, ferry officials say the 50-car Steilacoom II’s performance on the Port Townsend/Keystone run has been good.

“The actual data shows the boat is running well,” said Coursey on Thursday, though she admitted the ride can get a bit bouncy when conditions are poor.

Sailings of the Steilacoom II were cancelled earlier in the week and again Thursday night and Friday morning due to the heavy swells and high winds.

Coursey said the ferry system is searching for an alternate boat for the run after the Steilacoom II’s lease runs out in August 2009. She said an alternate vessel may be needed if the second bid for the new boat comes in too high.

The search is being conducted both nationally and internationally. An international boat would require the ferry system to obtain an exemption from the Jones Act, which allows only U.S. flagged vessels to travel between U.S. ports. Coursey said the ferry system has to find a suitable boat before worrying about the exemption.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the ferry system has to be careful about finding an alternate boat. She doesn’t want to spend money on a vessel that won’t work in the rest of the ferry system.

A Steilacoom II-type vessel can operate other routes in addition to the Port Townsend run. In a town hall meeting Wednesday night, Haugen said it particularly could operate well on a route in Tacoma currently served by the Rhododendron, which is approximately 50 years old.

Ferry system leaders met with the mayors of Coupeville and Port Townsend earlier in the week to discuss the Port Townsend/Keystone run.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said the meeting touched upon updates on building the new ferry and efforts to find a more suitable existing ferry. She said people have been second guessing the ferry system’s efforts to find a suitable boat.

On anther tack, the ferry system is negotiating with Pierce County to extend the lease of the Steilacoom II. With the current lease expiring in August 2009 a new vessel won’t be completed until October 2009, Coursey said.

Many residents feel the Steilacoom II isn’t good enough for the challenging route across Admiralty Inlet, which is the longest and roughest in Puget Sound, and therefore the ferry system shouldn’t build a vessel based on its design.

“The Steilacoom’s performance is not adequate for the run,” said Sarah Richards, president of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce. She said businesses that rely on the crossing have been hurt by the delays and cancelled runs of the Steilacoom II.

Critics like Richards would like to see three larger vessels built instead of the two that are currently planned. The preferred design is of the Island Home class. One currently operates in Massachusetts. It’s about the size of the 65-car Steel Electrics which were pulled from service in November 2007 due to hull corrosion. When that happened, the ferry system leased the Steilacoom II from Pierce County to keep a boat on the Keystone route.

While the ferry system is moving forward with construction of the 50-car ferry, one thing is certain: the run won’t have even half the capacity it did in previous years. Two Steel Electrics served the route during the busy summer months.

Motorists got a daunting preview of the new, one-boat situation last weekend during this spring’s first day of warm weather. Waits approached two hours for a sailing.

The ferry system will start offering two extra sailings during the summer and will implement a reservation system next month. Details of that haven’t been announced yet, but Coursey said it looks like about half the ferry will be available for reservations that can be made up to 30 days in advance and the other half available for same-day reservations.

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