Keystone ferry lease expires soon

With a mid-August deadline looming, ferry officials are still negotiating a lease extension for the ferry that provides service on the Keystone-to-Port Townsend route.

The lease Washington State Ferries has with Pierce County expires Aug. 18 and officials are still hashing out the terms for the extension.

Laura Johnson, spokesperson for Washington State Ferries, said officials are trying to figure out a deadline for the extension and avoid having to ask for even more time.

"We're trying to determine how long we will need it without having to ask for another extension," Johnson said Wednesday afternoon.

The route's new permanent ferry, known as the Island Home, is scheduled to be complete sometime in the summer of 2010. When it will begin service is also another unanswered question.

Johnson said once the ferry is built it will have to undergo sea trials and crew training. That process will last as long as six weeks.

Washington State Ferries has leased Pierce County's Steilacoom II since January 2008. It is the only vessel ferry officials have found that's capable of navigating the difficult and shallow entry into Keystone Harbor. The ferry system paid Pierce County $850,500 for the current lease for the Steilacoom II.

When the ferry system signed the 18-month lease, officials were moving forward with plans to build 50-car ferries for the route. However, those plans were scrapped when the bids for the vessels came in too high. The new bid for the current, 64-car Island Home ferry wasn't accepted until December 2008.

Marta Coursey, communications director for the ferry system, said that the deadline provides a chance for both Pierce County and the ferry system to re-evaluate the contract to make sure it remains mutually beneficial to all.

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