GUEST COLUMN Why our transportation leaders are failing Washington

The Washington ferry system reminds me of an old Woody Allen joke. Two ladies are vacationing in the Poconos, sitting at dinner.

The Washington ferry system reminds me of an old Woody Allen joke. Two ladies are vacationing in the Poconos, sitting at dinner.

“This food is terrible,” said one.

“Yes, it is awful,” the other agreed.

“But,” the first one brightened, “the portions are so large!”

Today, our transportations leaders want to buy the wrong size ferry at a too-high price, but the good news is, it will be built by a Washington state company.

While Woody’s joke is funny, running a ferry system without using simple logic is not. This kind of thinking is what led to allowing three 80-year-old steel electric ferries to rot in the water until they had to be pulled for safety reasons.

As a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, I have urged legislators, the governor and the Department of Transportation to carefully consider the types of ferries we need and open the bidding to non-Washington companies to get more competitive bids.

Instead, they simply want to buy the 50-car Steilacoom II ferry, which is too small for the Port Townsend-Keystone run. They claim it’s the cheapest and quickest to build and we have an emergency. They’re right about the emergency — ferry-dependent communities are hurting! But it’s the wrong boat! Why not buy the right boat, on time and at a fair price?

Is anybody listening?

With a little investigation, I discovered that Washington can get the ferries it needs:

First stick with a single boat design and order multiple boats. For example, if we ordered a single Island Home ferry, it would cost $47 million; for two, the cost drops to $37 million each; and for three boats, it drops to $35 million each.

Next, because Gulf Coast shipbuilders specialize in new boats rather than repairs of existing boats, economies of scale can save us between 15 and 25 percent by ordering there. In fact, I located a shipbuilder on the Gulf Coast who had an open slot to build three Island Home ferries in quick succession. They could have had the first by September 2009; the second six months later; the third six months after that. Another state is angling for this slot and we will lose it unless we act immediately.

I also learned that shipbuilders automatically add 30 percent to any government order. If Washington worked through a private company, which would order the state’s boats, the state could save much of that 30 percent.

Others say, “It takes too much time and we want to keep the work in Washington.”

Even if we can only get one bid that’s $9 million too high?

Even if we’re ordering the wrong boat?

Where is the logic here?

Democrats say we can get a lower price by eliminating “obsolete requirements, unnecessarily expensive steel and late delivery penalties.” So, how did we get a bid that included obsolete and unnecessary items in the first place? And ensuring timely delivery is not optional — it’s an emergency, right?

Contact the governor and ask her to call a special session of the Legislature to change the new law that prevents Washington from looking at other bids from out of state.

We must select and order the type of ferries we really need on each run. We must allow competitive bidding. We must start working smarter for the people of Washington.

Sen. Cheryl Pflug represents the 5th Legislative District.