Is the Hiyu option a ‘no brainer’?

Point of view.  It’s tempting to frame replacing the Chief with the Hiyu as a ‘no brainer’ because of the Hiyu’s assumed negligible capital cost (anywhere from $1 upward) and increased carrying capacity.

But we should remember Lummi Island ferry fares, always of keen importance to frequent ferry users, depend on total operating and maintenance costs, not capitol costs.

And it’s not just ferry users who pay those costs:  all owners of rural County properties annually pay, via road property taxes, 45% of operations and maintenance costs for the ferry to Lummi Island.  Ferry fares pay the other 55% of those costs.

To better understand how fares might be affected (+ or -), it’s important to compare all obvious and less-than-obvious predicted operations and maintenance costs for the two vessels. For example, everything from Public Work’s staff time to review the Hiyu option, to crew time needed to retrain on the new vessel, to dock modifications will be part of operating and maintenance costs that impact ferry fees.  Ditto for any and all operation (including labor) and maintenance costs associated with retaining the Chief as an supplemental / emergency vessel, perhaps with some costs paid by other counties (but how much might that be? any guaranteed income for this?)

Keeping just the Chief also, of course, entails many costs and risks that often are invisible to Lummi Island ferry users.  Seeing all of those costs compared would greatly help making the best decision.

The current report’s comparison of costs seems to me to not consider all such operation and maintenance costs, so one of my comments will be to ask the County (not LIFAC) to gather and report full information on these costs with their likely impact on ferry fares.  I don’t favor asking the Ferry Replacement subcommittee or LIFAC to do this (a list of concerns plus the report is quite enough effort on their part). Should the County choose (or not — it’s their decision, not LIFAC’s or islanders’, regardless of how passionate citizens are one way or the other), my hope is that their due diligence will include consideration of the effect of any option on ferry fares.

6 thoughts on “Is the Hiyu option a ‘no brainer’?

  1. All,

    As those who were at the last LIFAC meeting know, I’m the Technical Subcommittee member who gave the Hiyu presentation and wrote the vast majority of the report (gathering together countless hours of work and research contributed by every member of the subcommittee), so I have a fairly far-reaching depth of knowledge on the subject at hand. I am always happy to answer any questions anyone may have at any time, and quickly find out the answers that I don’t now off the top of my head.

    While I haven’t been an islander long enough to truly appreciate the various ups and downs of ferry replacement and/or fare discussions from the past, I know good data when I see it. I don’t have even the slightest nautical background, but I DO know machinery and I’m fascinated by a good technical challenge, and writing a concise, argumentative report has always been a passion of mine! That being said, I know what I don’t know, so if there are any glaring errors or omissions in our report, by all means speak up.

    That being said, I think that perhaps there are three major takeaways we as island residents should take away from this report – and none of them has anything at all to do with fares or crew size. They are:

    1. Overcrowding: The Whatcom Chief is currently rated, by the USCG, to carry 16 vehicles and up to 95 passengers. Every single day (and every single run during busy times), the Chief is loaded with 20 cars, so tightly that few can exit their vehicles should the need arise. While this need is quite minimal on a 6-minute voyage, the regulation still exists that REQUIRES the master of the vessel to load the ship in such a manner that vehicles can be exited safely and quickly. The specific federal law stating this is called 46CFR 185.340, which states, “Automobiles or other vehicles must be stowed in such a manner as to permit both passengers and crew to get out and away from the vehicles freely in the event of fire or other disaster.” This rule does not provide specific clearances or capacities, but rather leaves it to the discretion of the master of the vessel at the time of her loading.

    What does this mean? It means that the captains of the Chief are right now, today (and every day), willfully and knowingly violating 46CFR in the manner in which they load the ship. There exists in the public record NO EXEMPTION from the USCG or any other entity that allows us to violate this rule. In fact, the inspector at the USCG office in Seattle knows about this situation, and told us exactly what would happen should a complaint or incident ever happen – captains would be cited, liability would be clear, and the capacity of the Whatcom Chief would effectively be cut in half, immediately an permanently. This is no joke – anyone could, at any time, complain to the USCG, who would send an inspector, who would then write citations; we were told exactly and in no uncertain terms what would happen, and that it could effectively happen at any moment. The subcommittee feel that this single factor alone is enough to warrant immediate consideration of the Hiyu. I cannot stress this enough – like her or not, finances be damned, the Chief is being loaded in violation of federal law daily. This is a risk (and a massive, massive liability) that needs to be pointed out, in public, and addressed at once.

    2. Availability: The Chief is in great shape for a 53 year old vessel that is, honestly, beat to death 19 hours a day 50 weeks of the year. We pay a LOT of money to keep her that way – but she is well past the 35 year lifespan of saltwater ferries allowed by international standards, and almost at the 60 year lifespan given to Washington State Ferry vessels. At some point, she WILL break down, or have an accident, or (gods forbid) be knocked out of commission permanently. Should this happen, there currently exist on the entire 15,000 mile coastline of North and South America exactly TWO ferries that could be brought in to replace her on short notice – the Trek (which is also currently for sale) and the Hiyu. THAT’S IT. Once these two ferries are sold an no longer available to us, were something to happen to the Chief, it would be a minimum of three years and $10 million before another vehicle crossed the ramps on Lummi Island. Yes, passenger boats could be brought in, but there are no more “spare” ferries in this hemisphere that could come to our aid. The Hiyu is, quite literally, it. If we pass up this opportunity, we will have no choice but to wait three years and spend $10 million. Period.

    3. Affordability: Yes, the Hiyu is a larger ship. But every single indication we have shows that, on the Lummi Island run, she will use less fuel, require no additional crew, and deliver almost twice the legal load compared to the Chief. The Hiyu also requires dry dock for only one week every other year, and has a proven history of reliability and very low maintenance costs. The best part: she is already paid for, by OUR tax dollars! Washington taxpayers bought and paid for the Hiyu decades ago, so in essence we already own her. ANY amount we would have to pay for her acquisition, modification and dock work utterly pales in comparison to the aforementioned 3-year wait and $10 million. We would be able to get a solid 15 years of legally loaded, efficient service out of the Hiyu, while keeping the Chief as an equally reliable backup and spare ferry, herself very much in demand from the folks at Skagit and San Juan Counties as a heavy-equipment hauler (rental fees of which would more than cover the continued upkeep.) The numbers don’t lie, this is a sound financial investment for every party involved.

    There’s much, much more to the report than this, in fact more good stuff has been added since the presentation last week. I’m also more than happy to present this report to any gathering of islanders that would like to hear it – PLIC, Girl Scouts, whatever. The above items are, in my opinion, the key points that should be considered above all others when discussing the Hiyu. Finances will fall into line, crew can be trained to drive a different vessel, everything will work out…unless we pass on the Hiyu. If this happens, well, our next stop is to start saving for that $10 million bill and 3-year wait.

    Any questions, feel free!

    Thanks – Phil

  2. Great optimism + articulate selective comparisons & assertions + ‘scary’ conclusion for the only apparent option ($10 million! 3 yrs! yikes) — excellent persuasive technique. But not quite the whole story.

    • Again, I would welcome any additional parts of the “story” that you might have. We have provided the facts; they are not selective. Please, I beg of you, READ THE REPORT FOR YOURSELF. If you have any disagreement with the facts presented therein, I’m all ears 🙂

      I’m not trying to hard sell anyone, but rather deliver the facts as we have them. Are they scary? Heck yeah they are. Is a new ferry our only option, should the Chief go out of service? Unless you know of another suitable replacement ferry available for sale or lease anywhere in the Western Hemisphere (and we’ve looked), then yes, actually, that IS the only option. You may scoff at these facts all you like, but they will not change to fit your liking simply because you don’t like them. This is the reality with which we are faced.

  3. Raising concerns shouldn’t be regarded as starting a ‘fight’ or condemned as ignorant, empty nonsense. That would be one more senseless waste of energy. I have read the report, with eyes of decades-long experience in responsible critical analysis of such things (and much more complex things). I’ll submit a list of concerns to LIFAC, as will others, I imagine.

    As I keep saying (but not being heard or believed, I guess) I’m not “against” the hiyu option at this point and certainly don’t ‘dislike’ any particular views or assertions. I just have reasons to think that not all the issues have been fully laid out, The draft report & presentation are a start but should not be the end of informed, open and productive discussion.

    • I stated earlier my mind was open to considering all sides of the issues, as Wynne and others have repeatedly stated. On the other hand, I will not be stampeded into choosing what’s being offered as a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition, or be brow beat or insulted into submission for asking questions or offering other conclusions as to what the situation might be.
      Here’s just a couple examples:
      The report repeatedly makes a very strong argument that while the state does in fact run with a crew of 5 on the Hiyu, that it is quite simple and routine to get that reduced to 3. If it is so damn easy, then why hasn’t the state done just that in the last 47 years of owning the boat. Do they just like wasting money? Union Contract? Or, perhaps it really does take a crew of 5 to safely and efficiently operate the boat, given it’s much larger, holds more people, and they may need all those hands during an emergency.
      Pierce County has 2 – T class (under 100 tonne) vessels and operates both with a crew of 4 each. Why not 3? They also have a 5th hand (Purser) collecting fares at Steelacoom, whereas we keep our Purser busy on the deck. In effect, Pierce operates with a crew of 5 also. Our crossing times are only 6 minutes, so having one more Purser would seem very likely to need, costing about 1/3 more than we currently spend on Labor. It’s a fair question to ask if we are willing to absorb another $1/3 million per year in labor costs, when our cost are just now stabilizing after doubling in the last 10 years (now up to $2.6m/yr). Keeping the Chief in ready reserve would add how much more each year is another fair question.
      This is a question that LIFAC or the County should answer, as it’s not addressed in the Technical Report, which is not a knock on the report. It is not expected to answer each and every question possible, and I thank them publicly again for doing so.
      Another example: Pierce County is spending millions this year on docks, and for the first time paying about $400,000 in debt each year for bonds. Their last big upgrade wasn’t too many years ago. The bigger boats (mass or displacement have a much higher inertia) take a larger toll on docking facilities than smaller, lighter vessels do. I see nothing in the report that addresses that issue, and it’s fair to ask to County Engineering staff to do the proper calculations and studies to see how much that will cost over time. This is well beyond islanders to tackle that issue.
      Like cream rises to the top of the bottle, the Hiyu will rise on reason and not anyone’s shouting match.

  4. I couldn’t agree more! And please don’t mistake my passion for this subject with condemnation of arrogance; as a resident here (well, for a few more weeks at least) I have a very ken interest in safe, reliable ferry access. Not all the issues have been laid out, that’s true, but major issues HAVE been raised, that require swift action. Let’s hope the county agrees!

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