By JIM LARSEN
and NATHAN WHALEN
Lew Barmon was a lonely man early Wednesday morning, standing in the ticket booth at the Keystone ferry dock with no customers in sight.
He fully expected a busy pre-holiday day as he drove to work from Clinton that morning, but a few minutes before his 6:15 shift began he heard the news on his car radio: His ferry route had been closed the night before due to safety concerns surrounding the ancient ferries that are assigned to it, and the route wouldn’t open at least until Friday if the ferry system could get a passenger-only boat operating by then.
In the first hour of his shift, Barmon had to tell only a few people that the route was closed. “They took it pretty well,” he said. “It’s amazing how many people have heard about this.” The closure was made with only a few hours’ notice, but it did make it onto the evening TV news shows Tuesday.
“This is going to disrupt travel plans for a lot of people,” Barmon said. Not only was it the day before Thanksgiving, but the route to Port Townsend and the Olympic Peninsula is being used by a growing number of commuters. Ten frost-covered commuter cars were parked by the side of the road, and one could only guess what happened to the owners. Had they been stranded in Port Townsend, or were they on their way home via the Kingston-Edmonds ferry route, which is operating with three, rather than two, vessels to handle the expected traffic increase? That roundabout trip also entails taking another ferry from Mukilteo to get back to Whidbey Island.
Paula Hammond, Washington Secretary of Transportation, announced the route closure late Tuesday afternoon, saying the ferry system “will pull all of the Steel Electric class vessels out of service after they complete their runs today. This decision means that the Port Townsend-Keystone ferry route will be closed beginning tomorrow until further notice.”
Washington State Ferries owns four 80-year-old Steel Electric class boats, the Quinault, Klickitat, Illahee and Nisqually.
“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time of the year with the holidays coming up,” said State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen.
She equated the ferry route closing to the loss of the bridge and that it’s a crisis for Whidbey Island.
“We’re in emergency mode as far as I’m concerned,” Haugen said.
She said she didn’t have a lot of information yet and will be meeting with transportation officials Monday.
These vessels predominantly serve the Port Townsend-Keystone and San Juan Islands inter-island routes. They are the only automobile ferries in the system capable of operating in Keystone’s narrow and shallow harbor.
However, the old ferries have become notorious in recent months after springing a number of hull leaks that interrupted service temporarily several times. Recent revelations in the media, with reporting led by The Herald of Everett, suggested that the ferries’ hulls may be in worse shape than ferry officials reported to the Legislature.
Hammond made the closure call. “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,” she said 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.”
As of Tuesday, two Steel Electrics were operating – the Klickitat on the Port Townsend-Keystone route and the Illahee on the San Juan Islands inter-island route. The Klickitat was removed from the Port Townsend-Keystone route at the end of the service day Tuesday and the Illahee will be tied up at Anacortes after its last sailing tonight. On Wednesday afternoon, November 21, the Evergreen State will begin providing service on the San Juan Islands inter-island route.
“Safety is our number one priority,” said Hammond. “It cannot be compromised. We have kept up with the repairs on these vessels, but we are at a turning point that requires emergency action.
“I realize the timing of this couldn’t be worse,” added Hammond. “It is Thanksgiving weekend. We are doing everything we can to make this easier on the traveling public and the communities we serve.”
To help lessen the impacts of the loss of passenger-vehicle service on Port Townsend-Keystone, WSF will:
• Operate three vessels on the Edmonds-Kingston route from Wednesday, Nov. 21, to Sunday evening, Nov. 25, to handle the extra traffic expected over the Thanksgiving weekend. This route is the best detour for people traveling from the Olympic Peninsula to Whidbey Island.
• Operate the high-speed passenger ferry Snohomish between Port Townsend and Keystone. The ferry system is making every attempt to have the service up and running by Friday, Nov. 23, to serve customers during their Thanksgiving travel. The passenger ferry will maintain the current schedule.
“We are working with local transit agencies as well as major local employers to help arrange transportation connections on both sides of the route,” said Traci Brewer-Rogstad, State Ferries’ deputy executive director and chief of staff, in the news release.
“I have asked the ferry system to work with local shipyards to fast track a solution to get car ferry service back on this route as quickly as possible,” said Hammond. “Our first priority is to assess the full range of hull pitting in each vessel and determine the extent and the cost of needed repairs. Depending on what is found, the next step will be repair or retirement of the Steel Electrics.
“Our second priority is to expedite the vessel procurement process and to secure funding for new vessels on the Port Townsend-Keystone route. We are also researching the feasibility of hull replacement of the existing Steel Electrics, which might accelerate the timeframe for new vessels.” Hammond said, “We are making these decisions with customer safety first in our mind.”