Steel Electric Ferry Fiasco
Author: Jim Dickinson, Fall 2009
November 2007— On the eve of Thanksgiving, the Washington State Ferry System abruptly retires the remaining four 60+ car Steel Electric Class Ferries after finding corrosion issues in one vessel and cracks in the steel hull of another vessel.
The Steel Electric class Ferries were built in Oakland, California in 1927 for use on San Francisco Bay ferry routes. With the opening of the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridges, they were no longer needed and were purchased by Puget Sound Navigation and moved to Puget Sound where they operated until November 2007, ending their career under the aegis of the Washington State Ferry System. There were originally 6 of these vessels. They were double ended ferries powered by two diesel engines driving electric generators and electric propulsion motors/ They had steel hulls and bulwarks, supporting wooden passenger houses.
Renamed with local Native American names, two, the Willipa and Enetai were converted to single ended Ferries and direct-drive diesel power. These two were surplused by the State Ferry System in 1967, the other four continued to work as double ended ferries.
The remaining four, named Klickitat, Illahee, Nisqually, and Quinault, were extensively rebuilt in 1958 and again in the later 1980s with new power plants and replacement steel passenger spaces. They were the most fuel efficient per car load of all the State Ferries, extremely reliable, handled well, and beloved by both riders and crews.
In 2007, three of the four Steel Electrics were in daily service, the forth was a spare vessel. When cracks were found in the Klickitat’s hull, the Coast Guard insisted the bottom paint be stripped off the hull of the Illahee which was in dry-dock, they found steel deterioration. The Governor and the Ferry Director, decided not to inspect the other vessels, repair any of them and retire the whole class. Although there were corrosion issues and steel would have to be replaced, not even the Coast guard considered the boats unsafe, In fact they responded with a further wavier to bring at least two back with repairs if the State would pledge to immediately start the process of procuring replacements. The politicians decided to use the crisis as a lever to get the Legislature to allocate funds for new vessels, the State declined the offer. A year later, the first bid was let for the first replacement, two more were authorized in October 2009.
With the loss of the four ferries, Port Townsend had no ferry service. That left the Ferry system with less than no reserve vessels. In fact the too little, too slow 34 car Hiyu ,which was formerly available to us, and had been tied up for 10 years as a last ditch reserve vessel, was repaired and reactivated. Finally the new 54 car Pierce County Ferry Steilacoom II was leased and put on the severely reduced Keystone/Port Townsend run, replacing two Steel Electrics.
Why do we here on Lummi Island care? Simply, the State had not been allocating money to replace their aging fleet. The state of the Washington State Ferry fleet is deteriorating with one boat over 60 years old and three over 50 years old. The bad part was, previous to the event, the State was in no hurry to replace the 80+ year old Steel Electrics! What this did was to put the whole Puget Sound Ferry System into crisis. There are no useable used Ferries to lease, buy, or otherwise obtain on the entire West Coast, everything is running beyond maximum. The first of the new 64 car Keystone Ferries will go on line in August 2010, maybe.
What would happen to us if the Whatcom Chief is somehow found unsafe, damaged or forced to operate at reduced capacity. There are no suitable replacement vessels anywhere in the western U.S.A. to take its place. Further we cannot get one out of Canada as the Jones Act prohibits foreign made vessels from running on U.S. routes. We would be just plain stuck, the State and the other Counties have nothing left to help us, think about it.
Even though the scrap prices were at an all time high, when the State put the Steel Electric’s up for scrap bidding, no one would bid, as the ship breakers did not want to deal with substances on the boats. The State had to remove these materials before anyone would buy them, which cost more than it would have to repair two of them. By then the scrap prices had plummeted and they were sold to a firm for scrapping in Mexico, where they are not concerned about hazardous materials, for a paltry $200, 000, a fraction of what the cleanup costs were.
They have been cut up and are now material for rebar and razor blades. Meanwhile the affected ferry routes are still hurting, economic impact to the Port Townsend area alone has been in the tens of million dollars of lost revenue. Had the State repaired at least two of them, they would have served the communities and we would have had them for at least five more years, long enough to build new replacements. What can one say.. rev9