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Keystone ferry takes shape

Jerry Hisle, production supervisor at Todd Shipyards, and James McGee, labor representative for Local 252, chat in front of the new ferry that will operate on the Port Townsend-to-Keystone route beginning in the summer of 2010. - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Jerry Hisle, production supervisor at Todd Shipyards, and James McGee, labor representative for Local 252, chat in front of the new ferry that will operate on the Port Townsend-to-Keystone route beginning in the summer of 2010.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

Community leaders and state legislators got an up-close look this week at progress on the new ferry that is slated to operate on the Port Townsend-to-Keystone route beginning in the middle of 2010.

Workers at Todd Pacific Shipyard in Seattle are busy building a new 64-car ferry that will help restore permanent service to the route that connects Whidbey Island to the Olympic Peninsula.

Gov. Christine Gregoire and state representatives Barbara Bailey and Norma Smith were among the dignitaries who ventured Thursday afternoon to Todd Pacific’s facility on Harbor Island, which is located south of downtown Seattle.

“Building the lead ship of a new class of ferries is a difficult and complicated challenge,” said Steve Welch, CEO of Todd Pacific Shipyards.

The Seattle-based shipyard is the prime contractor for the new ferry, but shipyards from across the Puget Sound region are building components of the ferry as well. Freeland-based Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is constructing the pilothouses and passenger cabin; Everett Shipyard is building the curtain plate; and Jesse Engineering in Tacoma is constructing the hull ends.

“The ship is coming together fairly rapidly,” Welch said, adding that construction at all four locations is currently proceeding on schedule.

The new ferry, which is modeled after the Island Home ferry currently sailing in Massachusetts, will hold 64 cars and between 650 and 750 passengers. The vessel, which has yet to be named, has a shallow draft and powerful engines that will allow it to navigate through the difficult entry into Keystone Harbor.

Service on the route has been spotty since the four antiquated Steel Electrics were pulled from service in November 2007. A combination of passenger-only boats and the Steilacoom II has been providing partial service on the route.

The Steilacoom II, which the ferry system is leasing from Pierce County, was pulled from service for nearly six weeks at the beginning of the year for maintenance and repairs. Most recently, high seas and winds prompted the cancellation of sailings Wednesday evening; traffic was diverted and drivers had to endure the lengthy, four-hour trip. That detour includes taking the Mukilteo/Clinton ferry and the Edmonds/Kingston ferry.

“It’s been a tough go for ferry riders for a number of years,” Gregoire said at the event, but noted that safety was key in deciding to retire the Steel Electrics. She stressed the importance of replacing ferries before it’s too late. She noted that current project is the first time since 1999 that a new ferry was built for Washington State Ferries.

Gregoire was assured that the new ferry was on schedule.

Local officials attending the tour were thrilled to see the progress on the ferry.

“I’m impressed. How can I help but not be impressed,” Coupeville Town Councilman Bob Clay said. He added he can’t wait until the second boat is completed, which would restore normal service to the Port Townsend-to-Keystone route.

Rep. Smith said she was happy to see four local shipyards help in the construction of the new ferry. The ferry project has provided 360 jobs and provided work for 30 subcontractors and hundreds, if not thousands, of suppliers, Welch said.

The new ferry is scheduled to be complete around June of 2010. Once finished, it has to go through sea trials and should be ready to serve Keystone around August 2010.

As work on the $65.5 million ferry continues, ferry officials are preparing to find a builder for the second ferry. Bids for the new contract will be opened Oct. 8. David Moseley, assistant secretary for Washington State Ferries, said three companies purchased design specifications for the project.

The second 64-car ferry is scheduled to provide summer service for the Port Townsend-to-Keystone route in the summer of 2011, while the third will head to Tacoma a year later. It will replace the 62-year-old Rhododendron on the Point Deviance-to-Tahlequah route.

Officials realize that the three 64-car ferries isn’t enough to update the ferry system’s aging fleet. Once the smaller ferries are complete, there is an option to build a fourth 64-car ferry or a larger 144-car ferry.

Washington State Ferries sold the Steel Electrics and the four vessels are being scrapped in Mexico.

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