State ferry system in precarious situation

The Wenatchee ferry’s engine fire is big news not so much for the damage done but for exposing our ferry fleet’s frailty that will haunt us for years to come.

A fire broke out when testing one of Wenatchee’s diesels after overhaul. Although the fire was promptly put out, repairs could cost $1 million and take up to six months.

Commercial marine diesels occasionally have fires. Typically, they’re “stack fires’ from soot build-up in exhaust piping … like a home chimney fire. Also common are fires from leaking fuel or lubrication oil hitting the engine’s hot exhaust. Since this engine had just been overhauled, I’ll bet on the latter.

Given adequate resources, diesel repairs should be quickly completed. As a friend in the cruise ship business agonized: “I so struggle to comprehend why it would ever be OK to take a vessel out of service for four months … this just would not happen in the private sector without a catastrophic event … and a controlled engine room fire is not …” (Ferries’ response is in the cartoon).

Because boats were retired early without replacements our ferry fleet has dwindled. We don’t have quite enough boats to cover the summer service schedule, scheduled maintenance, while also having a boat in standby for the inevitable breakdowns that happen with our high-mileage fleet. Add to this boat crew shortages arising from a plethora of COVID-19 pandemic paid leave programs, and we have a “perfect storm” for service cuts.

The trickle-down effect on Kingston of service cuts is that when service is cut back at Southworth, Bremerton, Bainbridge and Port Townsend we can expect a chunk of that traffic to come here. Our summer ferry traffic is already trending above pre-COVID levels so expect a summer of long, honking backups. Note that although the state’s budget recognizes our chaotic ferry traffic it doesn’t mandate spending to manage it — eek!

In 2018 Gov. Jay Inslee called a halt of our humming ferry production line to shift it over to building hybrids. That surprise move exacerbated our problems by extending the ferry shortfall by five years. The state budget for 2021-23 only buys one new ferry. The hybrid ferry’s price isn’t yet known, and it won’t be delivered until 2024-25. Since money is tight, the legislature is wisely holding back funding for boats that would be delivered after then.

While Ferries has a lot of talented people, the governor’s hasty decision brings to mind an old adage: “Don’t jump out of the canoe until another is alongside.”

Elliott Moore writes a monthly column on Washington State Ferries for the Kitsap Daily News .