State’s new ferry small, but most expensive ever



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Posted on November 15, 2010 at 1:34 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 15 at 1:47 PM

SEATTLE -- Pound for pound, it’s the most expensive ferry ever built in the United States -  the MV Chetzemoka. Price tag? $80.1-million.

The boat is about to make its maiden voyage on the Port Townsend-Keystone run which was recently renamed the Port Townsend-Coupeville run.

The KING 5 Investigars have found that using the marine industry standard of looking at ferry construction costs by how many cars a vessel can carry, the Chetzemoka sits at the top of the heap by a long shot.

The Chetzemoka is small. It can carry 64 cars total. That means taxpayers shelled out $1.2-million per car slot for the boat.

That's more than two-and-a-half times per car slot than what it cost the state to build the fleet's biggest ferries in the late 90's. The "Jumbo Mark II's", which include the Wenatchee, the Tacoma and the Puyallup, cost $86-million a piece, or $425,000 per car slot.

The Alakai, which operates out of Alaska is another big ticket ferry in the country. Shipbuilders in Alabama constructed it in 2007 for $85-million. The Alakai carries 282 cars. Per car slot cost? $320,000. The Chetzemoka cost four times that.

The Chetzemoka is the first boat built in the state in over a decade. Director of Washington State Ferries David Moseley calls it a great day for the ferry system.

"We're thrilled to have the Chetzemoka going into service on Sunday,” said Moseley.

The boat will be a welcome sight to riders on the route.  They've limped along without full service for three years.

In 2007 their boats, the aging Steel Electric ferries, were yanked from service by Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond because of safety concerns.

"It couldn't have come at a worse time, today we have suspended service at Port Townsend, Keystone," said Hammond in 2007.

Ever since, the state's been frantic to get the Chetzemoka in the water. The mandate from leaders:  build a boat and build it fast, whatever it takes.

"There was a premium we paid to get that boat in service this Sunday and I'm pleased we will get it in service this Sunday, not three or four months down the line,” said Moseley.

Instead of starting from scratch, Washington State Ferries bought a design for the boat that was ready-to-go for $1.3 million. The design was originally for a boat called the Island Home which sails to Martha's Vineyard on the East Coast.  After putting out a request for bids across the country, that ferry system, The Steamship Authority, had the Island Home built in Mississippi for $33 million, or $500,000 per car slot. But constructing that same design in Washington state cost much, much more. 

Cost Evolution

With factors such as higher labors costs and stricter environmental standards in the Northwest compared with the South, Washington State Department of Transportation engineers first estimated it would take $49-and-a-half million to build the Island Home design here.

Todd Pacific Shipyards, based in Seattle, was the only bidder for the work. They came in at $65-and-a-half million for the job. The state agreed.

Expected changes and other fees brought the total to $77 million.

Not expected were $5 million more in design changes. That brought the total cost to $80.1 million.

Representative Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, serves a district dependent on the ferry system.

"I think no matter first of class or not, this thing is way too expensive and we need an audit process and ask ourselves why did we end up spending this much money on a boat that may not suit our needs exactly," said Seaquist.

How did the numbers get so mammoth to build the Island Home design in Washington?  The price tag here ended up being $47 million more than the cost to build it in Mississippi. 

A big factor is a state law requiring ferries here to be built in-state by builders like Todd Shipyards. Putting out a request for bids nationally isn't an option for Washington State Ferries. There's very little competition to get the best price. In this case, no builder in the state even tried to compete with Todd for the work.

"The fact that there was only one bidder was a budget issue, a cost issue," said Moseley.

On top of that, the KING 5 Investigators have learned about costly mistakes.

  • An extra million dollars to move an engine due to drawing errors by the state.
  • $330,000 more for replacing the rub railing which is a sort of bumper around the boat to protect it from damage.   The first rub railing was too small for the job.

Retired ferry captain Frank Longmate worked on the Port Townsend run on and off for 34 years.

"You'd think these guys would be smart enough to think of these things to figure it out before they build it,” said Longmate. He says the state should have known any boat on that rough weather route needs a sturdy rub rail. "Someone should have noticed that, right at the concept of the design work."

Sources tell KING 5 the Chetzemoka's problems don't begin and end with a big bill. Several people who've worked on the boat say the design is flawed and plagued with problems.  For example, they say the propellers are inefficient.

Just last week a captain on the Chetzemoka wrote in an internal memo that the new, expensive rub rails deserve a grade of a D-minus.

And they don’t like the fact that the ferry is lopsided.  In video KING 5 shot recently, it is obvious the ferry is higher on one side than the other. Our video also shows the list is noticeable while the boat is sailing.  

While KING 5 sources say a listing boat isn’t efficient, and can create safety concerns, the company that designed the Island Home, Elliott Bay Design Group, disagrees.  They say it’s designed to have a list, which is corrected when cars are on-board. 

"The single most important thing we can do for the ferry system is get them out of the business of building, designing and building boats and exclusively focused on operating a ferry system," said Seaquist.

"The proof is in the sailing and the boat is sailing well, said Moseley.  He says critics will eventually get on-board.

The Chetzemoka is the first of three Island Home boats being built in the state, and that's where Moseley says there's good financial news. The second and third boats are currently under-budget so in the end he says the high cost of the Chetzemoka will be cancelled out.

"I think the important thing to the taxpayers is: Can we bring this overall procurement program (all three boats) in line with the budget? I think we can," said Moseley.

Washington State Ferries is the largest ferry system in the United States, carrying more than 23-million passengers a year.