Leased car ferry due in January

A leased car ferry will begin serving the troubled Keystone to Port Townsend route in January as the state awaits construction of three new boats.

This was a week of mood swings for ferry users and government leaders involved in providing service to Keystone, which lost its car ferry when the four Steel Electric class boats were pulled from service just before Thanksgiving due to safety concerns related to their 80-year-old hulls.

Hopes that one of the Steel Electrics would be back in service next month were dashed last week when workers at Todd Shipyards in Seattle found the deterioration was beyond expectations.

Gov. Chris Gregoire announced Monday that the old boats, the Quinault, Klickitat, Illahee and Nisqually, which were built in the late 1920s, will be permanently pulled from service.

Leaders then went to work to quell the uproar in Port Townsend and on Whidbey Island, where businesses particularly were alarmed at the idea of losing car ferries indefinitely. By Thursday, a new plan had been agreed to by Gregoire and leaders of the Legislature, including Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen,

D-Camano Island, chair of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee.

Gregoire announced that the state will quickly begin building replacement boats for the Steel Electrics. In the meantime, the state will lease one of the 54-car Anderson Island ferries owned by Pierce County to carry cars between Keystone and Port Townsend, beginning in January.

This could be good news for troubled Freeland boat builder Nichols Brothers, the bankrupt company that built the Anderson Island ferry. Three new boats similar to that design will be ordered. Todd Shipyards will do the design work. The Legislature will have to approve the expenditure, but Haugen and other leaders have already voiced their support.

“This is pretty exciting,” Haugen told the News-Times Thursday, speaking from her cell phone shortly after the governor’s announcement. “We’ll have three new boats in 14 months.” Part of the money had already been set aside for ferry construction, while another part will be taken from the delayed Mukilteo ferry dock relocation project. “That money will be replaced,” Haugen said.

The state has to go to bid for the vessels, but law requires them to be built in Washington. That puts Nichols Brothers in the running, along with Todd and J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding. Those three yards formed a consortium to bid on state ferry contracts, but whether they’ll join together for this bid is not immediately unknown. Haugen said Everett Shipyard has also expressed interest in bidding.

Haugen was impressed by the speedy action between Monday and Thursday. “That’s very fast by state standards, believe me, I’m impressed,” he said. She credited new Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond with motivating the ferry system.

“She told the ferry system ‘this is what you’re going to do’. They’re not used to moving that fast,” Haugen said. The ferry system had been stalled for several years over whether to build a larger terminal in the Keystone, which is one reason the Steel Electrics were not replaced sooner.

To placate the Port Townsend business community, the passenger ferry Snohomish was pulled from the route to Whidbey Island and placed on a holiday schedule from Port Townsend to Seattle. That service started Thursday, with the Snohomish making four daily trips between the Port Townsend ferry terminal and Colman Dock in Seattle. The boat leaves Port Townsend at 6:45 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 2:45 p.m., and 6:30 p.m. It leaves Seattle at 8:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. Cost is $6.70 round trip and service will continue to the middle of January.

“We wanted to do everything we can to help the community while there is no vehicle service on the route,” said Traci Brewer-Rogstad, deputy executive director of Washington State Ferries. She described the service as temporary and said it will be reevaluated in early January.

To replace the Snohomish on the cross-channel route from Port Townsend to Keystone, the state contracted with Puget Sound Express, a private company that owns the 49-passenger Olympas.

The Olympas now sails from the Port Hudson Marina, at 227 Jackson in Port Townsend (a half mile north of the ferry terminal), to Keystone Harbor. It’s too small for the ferry slip so it docks at Keystone at the public boat launch used primarily by fishermen.

On its first day of service Thursday, the Olympas bounced across choppy Admiralty Inlet at relatively high speed. Ferry workers managed to rig some generator-powered lights at the boat ramp and waited for the passengers to arrive.

Passenger Janice Ecklund, who lives in Port Towsend but works part-time on Whidbey, was the first to emerge from the Olympas just after 1 p.m. “It’s bumpy but fine,” she said of the ride, as she scurried through the wind toward the waiting Island Transit bus.

About a dozen passengers boarded the Olympas for the ride back to Port Towsend. The Olympas maintains the current passenger-only schedule, weather permitting.

The busy week of ferry changes didn’t please everyone. The Coupeville Chamber of Commerce felt ignored and was envious of the holiday service to Seattle that Port Townsend received.

“Coupeville and Central Whidbey is also a beautiful community with lovely shops, great restaurants, scenery and quaint B&B’s,” states a news release distributed by Sarah Richards, president of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce. “It has suffered a significant loss of business as a result of the suspension of ferry service between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend . . . it appears the plight of Coupeville’s business community is being ignored.” The solution, as Coupeville sees it, is to have the Snohomish stop at Keystone on its way to and from Seattle, or perhaps start a separate service from Keystone directly to Seattle.

The chamber also asked for state money for marketing, and a direct bus link between the Keystone terminal and downtown Coupeville.

By Friday, the chamber had received some of what it wanted, including the bus linking downtown to Keystone. (See accompanying story for details).

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