$1 billion to fund 5 new hybrid ferries, but who wants to build them?

The state is seeking bids for a shipbuilder. The first ferry will serve the Mukilteo-Clinton route. It already has a name.

It’s slated to be the workhorse on the busy Mukilteo-Clinton route. But it needs a builder and four sibling boats in a construction deal worth more than $1 billion.

That’s a lot of money and guaranteed steady paychecks for whoever lands the contract.

“There’s a billion dollars out there to build five new vessels and we’re shopping for somebody to do it,” said Ian Sterling, spokesperson for Washington State Ferries.

The state is launching a new bid process for the five 144-car Olympic class ferries. Mega shipbuilder Vigor, which made a number of the state’s ferries, opted not to build the new hybrid boats after completing the design.

“It’s not a setback, it’s a speed bump,” Sterling said. “We got a design from them, but we weren’t able to come to terms on construction. We paid them to design the vessel and we own that.”

Negotiations stalled beyond the design phase.

“Their price was more than double what our estimate was for a new boat, and then on top of that there were some risks the builder would not take on and they were not willing to do that this time around,” Sterling said. “They’re still our friends. We will continue to do business with them.”

Is there another shipyard that can build these things?

“We are planning to go after that contract,” said Matt Nichols, vice president of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders on Whidbey Island.

The longtime Freeland company made the superstructures for other state ferries as a subcontractor for Vigor, including three 144-car vessels. Nichols said his company would probably team up with another Puget Sound shipyard.

The proposed five new ferries are urgent additions to the state’s aging fleet.

“We use these boats completely up,” Sterling said. “Toward the end of their life, when they are 50 or 60 years old, you quit putting money in them.”

He said construction is planned to begin in 2023 on Wishkah.

“Now we’re talking 2027 before we’re estimating it will be done,” Sterling said. “We can accelerate the schedule beyond that and we can get the other boats built faster.”

The name Wishkah was chosen in 2021 after seeking public input for names and an online vote that drew more than 5,800 responses. The name, which honors the river of the ancestral Chehalis people and flows through Aberdeen, was on the 1996 Nirvana live album “From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah.”