Ferry yard move picks up steam

An aeriel view of the Eagle Harbor ferry maintenance yard. - Courtesy of WSF
An aeriel view of the Eagle Harbor ferry maintenance yard.
— image credit: Courtesy of WSF

Ferries officials and local lawmakers are embracing a recommendation that the Eagle Harbor ferry maintenance yard be moved to Seattle.

The proposal could mean significant savings for the ferry system, would free up four-plus acres of prime waterfront property, and would remove an industrial use viewed by some as a nuisance in an increasingly urbanized harbor.

“Every time I take a shower, I think of more reasons why we should do this,” said WSF maintenance director Mark Nichtmann. “(WSF chief executive officer) Mike (Thorne) is pretty enthusiastic about the costs and operational synergies.”

A report by Wade Watson of KPFF consulting engineers was presented Thursday at a Seattle meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee.

The recommendation: Move the facility either to Todd Shipyards’ location on Harbor Island at the south end of Elliot Bay, or to the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 91 in the bay’s north end.

Income from sale or lease of the Eagle Harbor property could cover a significant portion of relocation costs; Watson estimated that the transfer could be complete by 2005.

While the committee will digest the report before making recommendations to the full Legislature, local representatives left little doubt about where they stand.

“I think those of us who have been with this process from beginning to end are elated that there are significant advantages as well as cost savings if the ferry system pursues locating the maintenance facility in the Seattle area,” said Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island).

Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo) agreed.

“Normally, we work to bring jobs to Kitsap County, not to export them,” she said. “But with the land that’s available, if it’s done right, that can provide more jobs and economic development.”

The report says that only 10 of the facility’s 125 workers live on Bainbridge Island, an economic impact so marginal that it was not studied in any detail.

The study was undertaken because the cramped, marginally safe Eagle Harbor facility – parts of which are 100 years old – needs a major upgrades. Before committing any money, the Legislature directed a year-long study of possible alternative locations.

One option, which former Bainbridge mayor Dwight Sutton had championed, was to shift work to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, keeping the jobs in Kitsap County.

But the 9-11 terrorist attacks thwarted that possibility.

“Because their programs have so dramatically increased, that didn’t work either physically or from a security perspective,” said Watson, a Bainbridge resident.

Another in-county possibility – the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Keyport – also missed the cut early.

While the facility has unused capacity, the water is shallow, and the nature of the soil is such that extensive dredging would probably be prohibited. That would require a 600-foot trestle stretching from the shore to the berthed vessels, which the report said was not feasible.

For the past three months, Watson has focused on Todd Shipyards, which has available space because it is streamlining its operations, and on the Port of Seattle, which also has under-utilized capacity.

Watson said both parties are sweetening their offers.

“You have two potential landlords that are both very hungry,” Watson told the committee.

Both the Port of Seattle and Todd have offered to build ferry facilities themselves, then amortize those costs over the life of a long-term lease.

While that option would cost the state somewhat more in the long run – the lessors would demand a higher interest rate from WSF than they were paying – it would have the advantage of not using any of the state’s finite bonding capacity.

Of the three possible alternatives, Terminal 91 is the least expensive, Watson said. He estimated the total 30-year cost of that option at $23.6 million, compared to a cost of $25.4 million to refurbish the Eagle Harbor facility and $35.5 million for the Todd Shipyards option.

Those numbers significantly understate the benefits of relocating the facility.

First, the Eagle Harbor property has substantial value if WSF ceases operations. According to an appraisal by Anthony Gibbons of Bainbridge Island, the WSF property could be sold for $5.5 million, or leased for up to $500,000 per year.

Also, refurbishing Eagle Harbor would cause substantial disruptions in the flow of work. If the operation is moved, facilities could be built at the new site, then moved into with little impact.

While the Terminal 91 alternative initially appears most attractive because of lower costs, its location may be a problem.

It sits between Queen Anne and Magnolia hills in Seattle, raising the possibility that neighbors would object to an industrial use.

“Magnolia and Queen Anne are about as pleasant to deal with as Bainbridge,” Nichtmann said.

Despite the apparently higher costs, the Todd deal may offer significant advantages.

At present, Eagle Harbor performs what is referred to as “intermediate” maintenance on both vessels and terminals – things like engine rebuilds, that can’t be done onboard while the boats are in operation, but don’t require dry-docking.

What WSF refers to as “capital maintenance” – major overhauls – are done at Todd under contract. Should the maintenance facility move to Todd, Nichtmann expects that WSF workers can do more of the work presently contracted to Todd, which can mean significant savings.

“Our blended per-hour cost of labor is about $30 per hour, and Todd’s is about $40 per hour,” he said. “Being there would let us use our own people more efficiently. The more we work those people, the more we save.”

Moving to either Seattle site would mean immediate cost savings, Watson said. He tracked vendor deliveries and the terminal-service calls made by Eagle Harbor personnel and learned that there are far more trips made from Bainbridge to Seattle than the other way around. He placed the value of time saved by being in Seattle at $125,000 per year, “and I am convinced that a much higher number can be justified.”

Rockefeller said he believes the financial advantages will persuade the legislature to support the plan.

“This may be a rare situation where the stars are in alignment,” he said. “Obtaining the necessary upgrades through a lease situation preserves the ferry system’s scarce capital.

“There are synergies, operational savings and benefits to the work force. The sooner we can do this the better.”

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