Could an aging WA fleet lead to more ferry mishaps?
The M/V Walla Walla was traveling from Bremerton to Seattle Saturday afternoon when it ran aground on a beach off Bainbridge Island.
Passengers remained on the stuck ferry for five hours before they were able to disembark.
The grounded boat was a reminder of the potential problems of an aging ferry fleet.
The M/V Walla Walla has been running for 50 years and Seattle Times transportation reporter David Kroman says aging boats are having cascading effects on the state’s ferry system.
"It's hard to ignore the context here, which is that the state has known for a long time that its fleet is getting older, and that they need upgrades and are planning to actually bring on new boats," Kroman said.
The Washington State Ferry fleet consists of 21 boats, 19 of which are in use when the ferry system is at peak service during the summer. Two boats are always out for maintenance.
This leaves thin margins for error.
"Of the 21 boats, about half of them are 40 years old or older. Some of them are older than 50 years," Kroman said. "The Tillikum boat is 64 years old and is actually due for retirement this year, but because they're stretched thin on these boats, the Legislature is spending almost $20 million a year just maintaining this boat that should probably be retired."
There are challenges to building new boats.
Negotiations between the state and the primary ferry shipbuilder broke down within the last few years.
Now legislators in Olympia are looking to find a shipbuilder outside of the state.
Shipbuilders and unions representing shipbuilders are frustrated by this change.
"They see if bids are going out nationally, particularly to places like Louisiana or Florida, the cost of living there and the regulations there and the rules around building are just so much more lax and it just becomes harder for those local companies to compete," Kroman said, "they see these changes as being a threat to their business."
Legislators counter that the risks of waiting to introduce new boats are too high to delay any longer.
David Kroman spoke with Soundside about the M/V Walla Walla grounding and the challenges of bringing new boats into service.