Ferry route closed until Monday

Limited ferry service sailing out of Keystone Harbor could begin Monday at the earliest.

Don’t expect to drive a car on to the boat. The old Steel Electric vessels, the only car ferries in the system able to navigate through narrow Keystone Harbor, were pulled from service Tuesday evening due to safety concerns surrounding pitting that has formed in the hull of the Quinault.

Those vessels will be replaced by the Snohomish, a foot passenger ferry that state officials had been preparing to sell on eBay.

Officials initially aimed to have passenger ferry service start on Friday but employees weren’t able to get the ferry ready in time.

“The boat hasn’t been run since 2003,” said Traci Brewer-Rogstad, deputy executive director for Washington State Ferries. She said Friday there isn’t a crew available that’s familiar with the vessel and officials are still working out such issues as fueling and moorage so the passenger ferry can operate on the route.

She didn’t guarantee that the passenger ferry would begin Monday, saying that may still be too aggressive a timeline to get the boat up and running.

The ferry route suddenly closed after the last run Tuesday evening when officials pulled the four Steel Electrics, the Quinault, Klickitat, Nisqually, and Illahee, from service. They did that after work on the Quinault showed significant hull pitting along the keel, and officials expect similar damage on the other vessels.

“After meeting with staff concerning the most recent inspections of the Steel Electric hulls, I have decided that we must pull these ferries from service to examine each of the hulls more extensively,” Washington Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond said Tuesday evening in a news release. “Ongoing work on the Quinault has revealed significant hull pitting along the keel that likely extends to all four Steel Electric vessels.”

The news of the route’s closing shocked commuters and left them scrambling to make arrangements for the Monday morning commute. The long Thanksgiving holiday weekend alleviated the immediate pain for many.

“I’m not sure how we’re going to manage,” said Liz Rosbach, a special education teacher at Coupeville Middle and High School. She learned the news Wednesday evening during parent teacher conferences at school.

On Monday, she is planning to leave Port Townsend at 3 a.m. That will give her enough time to drive down to Kingston, catch the ferry over to Edmonds, drive up to Mukilteo, and catch the ferry to Clinton so she can make it to school in time for the 7:30 a.m. start.

She wished that the ferry system would have provided more time to plan an alternative. She added that several of her fellow teachers have offered to provide accommodations during the closure.

The Quinault is currently in dry dock in Seattle and would be the first ship to be repaired but that won’t happen soon. Repairs won’t be complete until late January and the vessel wouldn’t be ready to return to service until mid-February, Brewer-Rogstad said.

Shutting down the ferry route just before the Thanksgiving holiday caused chaos with travelers. With only a few hours’ notice, many users of the ferry route were stuck for hours on Whidbey or in Port Townsend. Alternate routes were long, with those on Whidbey having to take the Clinton and Edmonds ferries, and those in Port Townsend forced to drive to the Kingston ferry.

To help lessen the impact, the ferry system is running three vessels from the Edmonds-Kingston route through Sunday.

“This couldn’t happen at a worse time with the holidays coming up,” State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said in an interview Wednesday morning. She didn’t have a lot of information available yet, but will be meeting with transportation officials Monday. She is the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

State Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, described the closure of the route as “unacceptable,” and called for fast action. “We need to do whatever it takes to get our water highway open again,” she said. “It must become our number one priority.”

Bailey described the ferry route as a “critical transportation link for our community,” citing figures that showed in 2006 the route carried more than 766,000 riders and nearly 370,000 vehicles.

Problems with the Steel Electrics have been known for years. “This closure is something that could have and should have been prevented,” she said.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said that if the closure had to happen, it was better to happen now than during the busy summer tourist season. She hopes that an interim solution can be found before next summer.

“We’ve been on borrowed time with the Steel Electrics,” Conard said.

With limited service possibly returning Monday, there still is the issue of how to get commuters who cross Admiralty Inlet to work every day.

Officials from the ferry system and county transit agencies are working together to coordinate transportation.

People who use vanpools provided from Kitsap or Island transit can park at the ferry terminal, hop onto the passenger ferry and then get another vanpool van when they reach the other side of the route, said Martha Rose, executive director for Island Transit.

She said Island Transit is working with the ferry system to coordinate schedules.

The 80-year-old Steel Electric vessels have been plagued with problems throughout this entire year that have prompted cancellations on the ferry route. The problems on the aging vessels include cracks forming in the hull and in the stern tubes. The route was closed for several days in March when the Klickitat had to be pulled and emergency repairs made. Then, in late July, the Illahee was pulled after a crack was discovered in the stern tube and the vessel started taking on water.

Currently the Klickitat remains moored at Port Townsend and the Illahee is scheduled to enter drydock early next week. The fourth vessel, the Nisqually, is at the ferry system’s repair facility at Eagle Harbor. Brewer-Rogstad said there hasn’t been as much work done on the Nisqually as the other vessels and staff are deciding whether to repair the vessel or retire it altogether.

The ferry system has been working out a way to either replace the Steel Electrics or replace the hulls on each vessel, however, no decision has been made yet.

Brewer-Rogstad said that once repairs on the Quinault are complete, that vessel will start operating out of Keystone Harbor. Until February or so, those who use the Keystone to Port Townsend route will have to make do.

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