Legislators ask for audit on construction of new state ferries

Lawmakers from the 23rd District have joined with Rep. Norma Smith to call for an audit on the cost of the design and construction state's newest ferries.

Washington State Ferries contracted with Vigor Industrial to build three Kwa-di Tabil-class ferries — the M/V Chetzemoka, M/V Salish and M/V Kennewick — and the last ferry built, the Kennewick, went into service on Feb. 14, 2012 on the Port Townsend-Coupeville (Keystone) route.

The trio of 64-car ferries cost roughly $206 million to build, and ferry officials said the new vessels came in nearly $7 million under budget.

State lawmakers have since raised concerns, however, about modifications ordered by Washington State Ferries during the design of the ferries that required costly modifications after the vessels were delivered to the state.

Legislators are still seeking answers to their cost concerns. In a letter sent to state Auditor Troy Kelly on Jan. 21, Smith (R-Clinton, 10th District) recalled sending a letter to state officials in August that raised concerns about the new ferries, including the tilt of the vessels that impacts ferry loading and operations, vibration issues and fuel efficiency, as well as questions about the new vessels' engines and propulsion systems.

Smith said she received a response to her letter from Washington State Ferries, but said it was "substantially inadequate and incomplete."

Smith asked the state auditor for an audit of the issues raised in her new letter, and the request found bipartisan support. The Jan. 21 letter was signed by Smith and 14 other legislators, including all three lawmakers from the 23rd District; Sen. Christine Rolfes and Rep. Drew Hansen of Bainbridge Island, and Rep. Sherry Appleton of Poulsbo.

"It is reasonable for ferry customers in the Puget Sound, and Washington state taxpayers, to expect best practices will be deployed in design and construction of new vessels," Smith wrote in the letter to Kelley. "Ongoing cost drivers from the design and construction phase should be accounted for as such, and not veiled in ongoing maintenance and operation budgets."

Hansen said he signed the letter because state ferries should be built with the bottom line in mind.

“We need to be sure we’re good stewards of public money," Hansen said. "I called for an audit of the 64-car ferry construction because I want to be sure those boats were built in the most fiscally prudent and responsible way, and I want to identify cost savings for ferry construction going forward.”

The Washington State Auditor's Office issued a performance audit on ferry construction costs on Jan. 3, and found that it costs the state more to build a ferry when Washington State Ferries is the purchaser than when compared with other entities that purchase ferry vessels. State officials said regulatory requirements such as the Build in Washington laws and the Apprenticeship Act are factors in the higher costs.

Though Smith's concerns were raised last year, state officials said her concerns were outside the scope of the performance audit, and that the report was also nearing completion.



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