From now and through 2018, Washington State Ferries will be conjuring its Long-Range Plan for our boats, service, fares and terminals. This month, we’ll look at where the ferry fleet is today and where it could go.
WSF has 22 ferries. With 19 needed in the summer, this allows one boat to be in standby while two boats are undergoing maintenance. That increases to four in the winter. But are 22 enough? Today, 60 percent of our ferries are more than halfway through their 60-year life. The lack of time for needed maintenance has increased breakdowns, with service cutbacks becoming the norm.
Let’s go over the boats, from smallest to largest.
The three 64-car Chetzemoka-class ferries are the only ones that can fit into Keystone Harbor (Coupeville) on the Port Townsend route. One is also at Point Defiance. They were built after the 80-year old steel electric boats were found to have severe hull rust in 2007. Because of their size, the Chetzemoka-class ferries are a poor fit on other routes so we won’t be building any more of them.
Of the four 87-car Evergreen State ferries, only the Tillikum remains. Though 58 years old, Tillikum will be staying past 60 years for reasons we’ll get into later.
The next biggest boats are the 124-car Issaquahs. Delivered in the early 1980s, their careers started with problems that caused them to ram the ferry docks, Kingston’s included. Overcoming adversity, the Issaquahs have since become a workhorse for the fleet. To reduce emissions and dependence on diesel, WSF is considering a trial project to convert one Issaquah to LNG (liquefied natural gas).
Moving up in size brings us to the 144-car Super-class ferries. Built in the late 1960s, they will need replacing by 2028. Hyak is an exception. When it came her turn for a mid-life overhaul, WSF had a bright idea to use federal money to convert it to a hybrid. That flopped and now Hyak has so much overdue maintenance that it’s cheaper to retire her now and keep the geriatric Tillikum around as the reserve boat instead.
A short step from the Issaquah boats is the new 144-car Olympic-class ferries. They were designed as an “expanded Issaquah” with more cars and wider truck space. By refining a proven design, WSF intends to have the efficiencies and savings of a standard ferry like Southwest Airlines has with the 737.
Our largest ferries are the 200-plus-car Jumbo ferries. They will be 60 years old in 2032. The big question is whether to build new 200+ car boats or replace the two Jumbos on our route with three 144-car ferries. Three boats would give us some more capacity and sailings. That also would space out traffic. On the other hand, we would likely see WSF dropping back to two boats in the off season.
Another big question is whether or not to keep the Olympic production line going. The Supers are having a lot of maintenance issues and their early replacement would improve system reliability. On the other hand, the cost of another Olympic would go up by $10 million and these boats already have the highest cost per car space of any ferry being built today. It wouldn’t hurt for WSF to reconsider what boats we’re buying and from whom. BC Ferries’ new high tech 145-car Salish-class ferries cost only half of the Olympic ferry’s price tag. On top of that, the “built in Washington” requirement for the Olympics disqualifies us from federal funding.
Have a happy Thanksgiving, and please look over Bill Maule’s nearby account of being a holding lot entrepreneur.
— Walt Elliott is chairman of the Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee. Contact him at elliott firstname.lastname@example.org.