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Thursday, November 22, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rough weekend ahead: 4 ferries yanked

Seattle Times staff reporter

Passengers' travel options

The state plans several changes to the schedule to accommodate passengers while the ferries are sidelined:

• Three vessels are operating on the Edmonds-Kingston route until Sunday evening to handle expected extra traffic over the holiday weekend.

• The passenger ferry Snohomish, now in dry dock, will run between Port Townsend and Keystone. The ferry system hopes to have the service running by Friday on the current schedule. The boat, with its sister ship the Chinook, was scheduled to be offered for sale on eBay next week, but that's been postponed indefinitely.

For people traveling from the Olympic Peninsula to Whidbey Island, the best detour is driving to Kingston, taking the ferry to Edmonds, then driving north to the ferry dock in Mukilteo.

For updates on ferry conditions, see www.wsdot.wa.gov/

ferries/

New state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond was at a meeting Tuesday when crews working on the ferry Quinault, now in dry dock at Todd Shipyards, showed her a map that pointed out areas where pits were found in the hull of the 80-year-old ferry.

Shocked and concerned, Hammond immediately ordered that the other three boats in the Quinault's Steel Electric class be beached for at least two months.

A passenger-only boat will replace the Klickitat, which was pulled from the Keystone-Port Townsend route. But that's little consolation for drivers, who face a detour that will add about two hours, depending on traffic.

On Thanksgiving weekend last year on the Keystone-Port Townsend route, the ferries carried 300 foot passengers and 1,000 cars a day.

"I realize the timing of this couldn't be worse," Hammond said Wednesday. "Safety is our No. 1 priority. We're going to pull them out and do a deep inspection.

"I couldn't in good conscience jeopardize anyone's safety. It's 80 years of saltwater and wear and tear on a very old boat."

The Steel Electric boats — the Klickitat, the Illahee, the Nisqually and the Quinault — were built in 1927 and serve the Port Townsend-Keystone and the San Juan Islands interisland routes. They are the only car ferries that can operate in Keystone's narrow, shallow harbor.

The affected ferries were pulled from service after their last sailing Tuesday night. By early Wednesday evening, drivers at the Edmonds dock were facing a 90-minute wait, although that had fallen to 60 minutes by midevening.

For now, the state's oldest ferries will be tied up at least until the end of January while they are inspected for cracks and leaks in their hulls.

"It's terrible. It's like a bridge going down," said State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "The fact they're facing a two-month outage is terrible."

"On borrowed time"

Hammond said the problems began in July, when cracks started appearing. "I always knew we were on borrowed time," she said. "Are we safe this week? Are we safe today?"

Mike LaCroix, acting senior port engineer for Washington State Ferries, said the state measures the depth of a pit, and if the depth exceeds 25 percent of the original thickness, the steel should be replaced. He said there were numerous areas on the Quinault where this occurred.

The Coast Guard, which has been watching the class of ferries with increasing alarm, had asked the state to look at the inside of the Quinault's hull with the paint removed. Even in areas with good paint, crews found pitted steel.

Until they were pulled, two Steel Electric ferries were operating: the Klickitat on the Port Townsend-Keystone route and the Illahee on the San Juan run. The ferry Evergreen State replaced the Illahee. The other older ferry, the Nisqually, had been rotated out of service.

It could cost as much as $500,000 just to assess the condition of the other boats.

"Where's the money? That becomes the issue," Haugen said. "We need to see if we can get the Quinault back in the water and need to keep that boat running."

A fast-track fix

"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," Hammond said.

Once the extent of the hull pitting is determined, she said, the state will decide whether to fix or retire the ferries.

Hammond said repairing the Quinault would cost an estimated $4 million, and a new boat could cost $50 million to $60 million. A naval architect hired by the Legislature to look at the problem said the hulls could be replaced for about $40 million apiece.

Officials may consider delaying construction on four new 144-car ferries — a $347 million project — to find money to address the problem.

"All ferry priorities are on the table," Hammond said.

She said her department has to decide what it will recommend to the Legislature next year.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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