Citizens, shipyards duel over ferry bill

OLYMPIA — A swell of citizen support collided with opposition from shipyards and trade unions in Olympia this week when the House Transportation Committee heard a bill to open ferry construction to bidders outside Washington.

Rep. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge and advocates from several ferry-served communities have called for the opening of bids as a way to lower the cost of ferry construction while qualifying the projects for federal stimulus money.

Representatives from shipyards and unions argued that the taxpayer-funded jobs should be kept in-state and said they could work with Washington State Ferries to bring down the cost of ferry construction by developing a more consistent vessel-replacement plan.

"We want to help you solve this problem," Matt Nichols of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders said. "Part of your cost issue is the way you do business, I'm not going to pick on you, but maybe there are other ways of doing business."

Rolfes introduced House bill 1652 in January after hearing from citizens frustrated over WSF's bidding process.

Since retiring the steel-electric ferries in 2007, WSF has awarded just one contract for a 64-car ferry. In December WSF awarded Todd Shipyards a $64.5 million contract to build one Island Home ferry. Bidding was open only to Washington shipyards. Todd was the only company to bid and its bid was millions more than WSF had estimated for the project.

The proposed bill would apply only to ferries designed to carry fewer than 100 cars.

At a Monday hearing, Rolfes told fellow Transportation Committee members that WSF's inability to replace the retired steel-electric ferries has led to damaging service disruptions throughout the system.

"We ferry riders are a hardy and a patient bunch," Rolfes said, "but on a fairly regular basis hundreds of people are left stranded at our docks, our local economies are further strained and the sense of betrayal grows."

Rolfes said HB 1652 would open WSF to $60 million in federal funds designated for ferry construction in the stimulus package being considered by Congress. She said local shipyards are well equipped to compete for ferry contracts and would benefit from an influx of federal money.

"This bill doesn't seek to take jobs away from Washington," Rolfes said. "Without this bill, those jobs don't exist."

Reps. Jan Angel and Larry Seaquist, and a host of citizens from Kingston, Bremerton, Vashon and other ferry-served communities, testified in favor of the bill.

"Representatives, you see the system is short of funds," said Debbi Lester of Bainbridge. "Be creative and seize this opportunity."

Representatives from Puget Sound shipyards agreed their companies were well equipped to compete on a national level but argued that the contracts be kept in Washington to bolster local economies.

Todd CEO Steve Welch said companies outside the state aren't held to the same labor and environmental standards that the Legislature requires of Washington contractors. Awarding contracts to outside shipyards would also complicate the delivery and maintenance of new ferries, Welch said.

Union representatives, including Dave Bunch of Boilermakers Local 502, believe the focus should be on supporting local industry.

"It's a terrible time to be talking about shipping our tax dollars out of the state," Bunch said.

Ferries on the agenda:

Feb. 5 the House Transporation Committee will hold a work session on "Ferries and climate change" along with the Kitsap County telecommuting pilot project. See a full agenda.

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