Beached ferry reminder of Washington’s aging fleet as state struggles to replace boats

As the sun set and the tide receded on the Walla Walla ferry Saturday night, the lights on the 50-year-old Jumbo-class steamer grew brighter against the dim sky.

The photo is both striking and unsettling, serving as the backdrop for the state’s aging fleet of 21 ferries that require more maintenance to keep afloat.

Gov. Jay Inslee made the point from the shores of Bainbridge Island, where he watched as nearly 600 passengers were loaded onto a rescue boat provided by Kitsap Transit. is an unwelcome symbol of the 111th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

“Look, we have a very old fleet,” he said. “We desperately need new ships. We’ve known that for a long time.”

Lawmakers in Olympia have already moved to budget $1.5 billion over 16 years to build new boats and convert existing boats to electric.

But the challenge of completing the new ship went beyond the budget. Soaring costs and a labor shortage could mean Washington doing something it hasn’t done in more than 50 years: build ships out of state.

The state has been behind for at least two years, largely due to a breakdown in talks with Seattle-based shipbuilder Vigor, which built the last 10 ferries. That means Washington is spending huge sums to keep ships like the 64-year-old Tillikum afloat when they are due to retire.

The state is rebidding contracts for the next five ships. Previous rounds of bidding have favored local builders, and the state will only look across the country if bids exceed the engineer’s estimated cost by 5 percent or more.

But with Vigor on hold, lawmakers lack confidence that Washington will receive enough competitive and affordable local proposals, which would mean running another bidding process and consuming more time.

A bill in Olympia, House Bill 1846, could change all that by opening the country to open tenders from the start, allowing shipyards as far away as Louisiana or Florida the opportunity to build ferries. Under the proposal, local builders would receive credits in bid prices, giving them a slight advantage. It passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support and now needs to be reconciled before heading to Inslee’s desk.

“It’s clear that our current model is not working,” said Sen. Marko Lias, D-Everett, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “We can’t pay double for every boat from now on. … Unfortunately, when we look at the sights, there’s no guarantee we’ll find an affordable boat in Washington. I hope we do, But we can’t wait.”

The fragility of the ferry system was clearly on display throughout the weekend. Even before the Walla Walla crash, sailings between Bainbridge and Seattle were canceled due to crew shortages, a long-running problem that dates back to 2020, when a wave of retirements, resignations and layoffs hit ferry services . For years, there was only one ship at the border crossing between Bremerton and Seattle because it was considered a lower priority for normal service than other passages.

From 2000 to 2010, Washington State Ferries did not build a new ferry for 10 years. Of the 21 ships in service, 11 are over 40 years old and 5 of them are over 50 years old.

During the summer, 19 ships operate simultaneously while in full service. With two ships out for maintenance at any one time, that means, with 21 ships available – down from 24 in 2016 – there is hardly any idle in the system. Ferries are regularly shut down for emergency repairs, most notably when the ferry Cathlamet crashed from Fauntleroy wharf last summer.

Three ships will be decommissioned by 2027; Tillikum is scheduled to be decommissioned this year. But at the current pace of signing contracts, the earliest new ships will arrive in 2027. As a result, the Legislature may budget nearly $20 million this year to extend Tillikum’s run.

After apparently losing power, the Walla Walla ran aground around 5 p.m. Saturday as it entered the Rich Passage en route from Bremerton to Seattle, according to a Washington State Ferry spokesman. The U.S. Coast Guard will investigate the cause of the crash, spokesman Chief Petty Officer Steve Strommair said. Crew on board have been tested for drugs and alcohol, which is standard after any incident.

Passengers recalled lights flashing, followed by sirens on the ship and the captain warning people to brace for impact. The crash itself was mild as the ferry stopped on the sandy beach south of Bainbridge Island.

“It was controlled chaos,” said Rhona Jones, who was trying to return home to Seattle on Saturday night, but instead spent the night with her son in Bremerton after five hours on the ferry.

There were approximately 600 people on board, all transported back to Bremerton from Walla Walla by Kitsap Transit speedboat. However, this meant nearly 200 cars were left on board.

The tugboat managed to turn the boat over and dock it in Bremerton so the car didn’t need to reverse away. Full details of the boat’s failure have not yet been reported, but Washington State Ferry said it appeared to be a generator issue. Divers will dive into Puget Sound on Sunday to inspect the hull for damage, according to Phil Olwell, director of the Washington State Ferries Rescue Terminal.

Passengers and trailers lined up at the Bremerton docks from 9am on Sunday.The bewildered crew unloaded the boat over the course of an hour, ending around 10am

On Sunday, the Issaquah ferry diverted to the Bremerton route. The Coast Guard’s Strohmaier said no timetable has been set for the Walla Walla’s return to service. But knowing how stretched the system is and how critical each ship is, he said, can speed up diagnosis and resolution.

“We want to determine why this is happening and, if it’s a mechanical issue, what can be done to fix it,” he said.

— David Croman, Seattle Times, Associated Press

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