Ferry service restored after MV Kennewick repaired

Washington State Ferries’ long range plan commits to building a new fleet of boats that will be hybrid-electric. 

The Port Townsend/Coupeville ferry route was out of service Sept. 23, after a leak in the cooling system was reported on the MV Kennewick. The leak was repaired by 10:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and ferry service resumed Sept. 24, according to Washington State Ferries. 

The mechanical problems occurred on a particularly busy weekend, as motorcyclists from the Peninsula flocked to Anacortes for the Oyster Run, and filmmakers from near and far traveled to Port Townsend for the Port Townsend Film Festival. 

The MV Salish, the other vessel normally running the route along with the Kennewick, between Port Townsend and Coupeville, has been in repairs for two weeks, after it ran aground Sept. 7 during the Wooden Boat Festival.

At noon on Sept. 23, the wait time for the Mukilteo ferry departing from Clinton was 90 minutes, while the wait time for the Kingston ferry was two hours.

At the county commissioners’ meeting on Sept. 24, Tom Thiersch, Chair of the Jefferson County Ferry Advisory Committee, presented WSF’s draft long range plan, which was released on Sept. 10 and includes the goals of committing to reliability by building new vessels, increasing vessel maintenance, and enhancing reliability of terminal structures.

“We have, for the large part of the year, only one boat,” Thiersch said. “We need more backup service, and more reliable service. Things do break, even on the fairly new boats like these 64-car boats that we have, but when they do break, we need to have some backup.” 

The long range plan, which will be in effect from 2020 to 2040, commits to an entirely new fleet of boats, which will have hybrid-electric propulsion. There will also be more time spent servicing the boats. Now, eight weeks out of the year are spent servicing each boat. With the new plan, 12 weeks will be spent servicing each boat. Not only that, but the boats will be retired earlier.

“One of the things that is going to drive this plan is the need to build a lot of new boats fast, and maybe start retiring them sooner,” said Thiersch, explaining that WSF currently operates under a 60-year life goal for the vessels, which is well beyond industry norms. “Most places do not run their boats this hard for this long, for this many years.”

A study done by WSF showed that half of all ferry service cancellations were due to mechanical problems, like the Kennewick and Salish cancellations this month. 

“It seems like we should rally for additional boats that fit our route,” said Commission Chair David Sullivan, underlining the issue of service cancellations when one or both of the Port Townsend/Coupeville ferries are experiencing mechanical issues.

Tiersch added that the local Ferry Advisory Committee will be recommending to WSF that all boats be a common size, 144-car vessels, so if a route should need a replacement, it is easier to borrow a vessel from another terminal.

When the boats start to get old, added Thiersch, the cost of fixing them is extremely high because it is difficult to get parts. In an ideal world, he said, one new boat would be built each year. 

“They find that they are not spending enough time maintaining the boats, which leads to breakdowns,” Thiersch said. “If boats were 100 percent reliable, (the current) 22 boats would be fine.”

Building hybrid boats is part of WSF’s goal to become more sustainable. The boats will also make considerably less noise, according to Thiersch, which will be better for orcas, who communicate by sound. 

During the commissioners’ debriefing, Commissioner Kate Dean brought up the issue of the number of cars making the trip across the water, mentioning that she hoped the long-range plan would focus on reducing car trips.

“How do we make other connections to other forms of transportation easier, so that the car isn’t the organizing principle around the ferries?” Dean asked. “Is there an effort being made to incentivise non-car trips?

Part of the long range plan includes increasing the capacity for passengers. However, Thiersch warned that more passengers on ferries also means increasing crewmen necessary for a safe passage. He added that transportation to and from ferries is something that the county would need to address, as there is currently no Sunday service from the Jefferson County Transit on the Port Townsend side of the ferry. 

“We also don’t have places to leave your car,” Thiersch said.

The Jefferson County Ferry Advisory Committee had several issues with the draft of the long-range plan, which they hope will be addressed before the final plan is submitted to the Washington State Legislature in January 2019, one issue being that the Keystone Harbor needs to be studied further.

“We need to revisit the Keystone Harbor study,” Thiersch said, referencing a study of the Keystone Harbor that was done in 2003 and 2004, and resulted in no change to the ferry terminal. “It is a treacherous landing, as we’ve just seen. We keep grounding boats every few years. We damage rudders, we bend propellers.”

The commissioners ended the debriefing by mentioning that they hope to submit a letter as comment on the long range plan. 

To view and make comments on the draft long range plan, go to wsflongrangeplan.com. An additional open house will allow the public to learn more and make comments in person at 5 p.m. on Oct. 10 at the Cotton Building in Port Townsend. 

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