Questions plague Vashon’s newest ferry

The Chetzemoka replaced the Rhododendron in January. Since then, some have questioned its performance. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
The Chetzemoka replaced the Rhododendron in January. Since then, some have questioned its performance.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

As Vashon’s newest ferry nears one year of service, lawmakers, Islanders and even state ferry workers are raising concerns about a boat that burns more than twice as much fuel as the one it replaced and requires a larger crew.

And despite claims by state officials that the $80 million Chetzemoka and its two sister ships are well built and don’t require mechanical fixes, concern and confusion persist over the boats’ slight lists and perceived vibrations, as well as the Chetzemoka’s struggles on the Tahlequah-Point Defiance route, where the crew must take special measures to keep the powerful boat’s engine temperatures high.

“It’s a travesty,” said Jack Barbash, who rides the Chetzemoka daily to his job in Tacoma. “The public should be aware of how much the boat cost, how much it costs to operate and how much more cars it holds relative to the Rhody.”

Lawmakers, meanwhile, say they’re asking the state for answers. Though they’re currently struggling to get to the bottom of a multitude of complaints and claims made about the boats, they’re also pledging to tackle the issues during the legislative session in January.

“We’ve got some issues with brand new boats that we hope we’re going to resolve,” said Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island).

The Chetzemoka be-gan service on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route in late 2010 and was moved to the south end of Vashon in January, where it replaced the Rhododendron. The oldest boat in the fleet, the Rhody had served the Tahlequah route for nearly two decades; it was taken out of commission  because the aging vessel no longer met U.S. Coast Guard safety standards.

But in the months since its arrival, the Chetzemoka has proved far costlier than the 55-year-old boat it replaced.

It uses about 67 gallons of fuel per hour compared to the Rhododendron’s 24 gallons per hour — a rate of fuel consumption that costs about $1.02 million more over the course of a year, said Marta Coursey, a spokeswoman for Washington State Ferries (WSF). What’s

more, the Chetzemoka requires a crew of 10, while the Rhododendron had a crew of eight. All told, it means the route requires seven additional employees, amounting to $623,000 more in annual labor costs.

The Chetzemoka’s sister ships — the Salish and the Kennewick — are racking up similar costs on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route. The two boats burn even more fuel — 98 gallons per hour — while the boats they replaced used 64 gallons per hour.

Greg Beardsley, chair of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, said he worries that the higher costs incurred by the Chetzemoka will end up hitting ferry riders and taxpayers’ pocketbooks or might lead to service cuts.

“The ferry system only has so much money to operate,” he said. “If they’re using an inefficient boat that’s costing them more to operate, … it’s more pressure for them to have a service cut.”

Beardsley and Kari Ulatoski, head of Vashon’s Ferry Community Partnership, both say they’ve had concerns about the costs and design of the Chetzemoka and its sister ships since before they were built. Beardsley believes the state would do better to scrap the Chetzemoka and start over.

“Quite frankly, I think they should have built a right-sized boat for that route,” he said.

But now that the boats are on the water and the ferry system is again facing a large deficit in the state’s 2013-2014 budget, Ulatoski said she doubts much can be done to remedy their perceived problems.

“I don’t know if it would be throwing good money after bad at this point,” Ulatoski said.

Nelson said some lawmakers, too, are displeased with the performance of the Chetzemoka and its sister ships.

“We were assuming they were going to be more fuel efficient than what we had,” Nelson said. “I had expected we would have savings. … Every gallon of fuel is a cost to someone who is riding the boat and to the citizens across the state.”

She said she didn’t know what could be done about the boats but believed addressing the boat’s inefficiencies would be a priority for the ferry caucus in January.

“It’s a real conundrum as far as costs,” she said.

But WSF director David Moseley stands by the Chetzemoka and says it doesn’t have any significant mechanical issues. While it does require more fuel and a larger crew, Moseley said, it also carries more vehicles. “The capacity is something we wanted to add to the south end of Vashon, and that does come at a cost,” he said.

The Chetzemoka’s added fuel and crew costs will be considered as part of the ferry system’s overall operating budget, which has been in the red for years due to declining tax revenue, Moseley said. Last month, state officials proposed $5 million in ferry service cuts, including the elimination of two round trips on the Tahlequah route, reductions that Moseley said were based on ridership not route operating costs. He said he couldn’t predict how the added costs might influence fares.

“Fares will reflect the overall cost of the ferry system, and certainly fuel is part of the overall cost,” he said.

But the question of the Chetzemoka’s increased capacity is another source of frustration among WSF critics. The state says the Chetzemoka — with a capacity of 64 — can carry 16 more vehicles than the Rhododendron did. But Barbash, an environmental research chemist who last year tried to convince the state that the Rhody shouldn’t be replaced, said multiple crew members told him that by carefully loading the Rhododendron they could regularly fit up to 60 vehicles on the boat — just four fewer than the Chetzemoka. A Chetzemoka crew member last week told a Beachcomber reporter the same thing.

“The difference is not as great as (WSF) claimed,” Barbash said.

Coursey said that at one point the Rhody’s capacity was listed at 55, but it was reduced when a new marine evacuation system was added. She said she couldn’t say how many cars had sailed on the Rhododendron at any given time.

“Any reports regarding a greater number at any given time are purely anecdotal,” she said.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have begun raising questions to the state about the performance of the Chetzemoka and its sister ships, called the Kwa-di Tabil class. In fact, Rep. Norma Smith (R-Clinton) was so troubled by what she’s been hearing about the three boats that she wrote a lengthy letter to ferry officials in August, asking for explanations on a number of issues.

“While there seems to be no question regarding the safety of the ferries, serious concerns regarding design issues that could impact the life cycle of the three ferries and higher maintenance and operations costs have been brought to my attention,” she wrote in the letter.

Smith said she was disappointed by the reply she received two weeks later, a five-page letter from Moseley and State Secretary of Transportation Paul Hammond, in which the two officials discounted most of her concerns.

Moseley and Hammond explained that boats’ list — which is largely corrected when the boats are full but has nonetheless been questioned by many  — is intentional, a part of their design that allows them to carry more oversized vehicles. And while Smith said she and others have felt unusually strong vibration on the boats, Moseley and Hammond said engineers have found no vibration issues.

When Smith questioned whether there have been problems with the boats’ engines and propulsion systems, as she had heard, the officials said there have been no significant issues and only a few repairs to other systems under warranty. And while the officials said fuel consumption is in fact high, Moseley and Hammond asked Smith to consider that the boats’ engines are also much more powerful, “so any comparison between the classes is not a direct comparison.”

Smith, however, said she still believes there are issues with the boats that stem from poor decisions made during their design process, and they’ll eventually need fixes. Both letters have been widely circulated, Smith said, and she and other ferry caucus members are still looking for answers and she planned to meet personally with Moseley and Hammond.

“I have serious concerns about the design decisions that were made and the need to now have a transparent conversation about the resulting consequences and how we address them as we move into the future,” she said.

A ferry engineer, meanwhile, has directly countered several of the state’s claims about the ferries. In his own August letter to Smith, Alex Zecha, chief engineer on the Salish, one of the Chetzemoka’s sister ships, criticized several aspects of the boats’ design as well as their poor fuel efficiency. He said the boats lean more than WSF expected and claims the state has already investigated how much it would cost to correct it.

“This is not a very commendable state of affairs, particularly considering the difficulties faced in recent state budgets,” Zecha writes.

The state auditor’s office also appears to be questioning the ferries’ design process. It is currently finishing a yearlong audit of the ferry construction program, with results to be published next month. In a brief issued last year, the office cited citizen and legislator concern as one reason for the audit and said the audit will determine “whether Washington taxpayers are getting the best value for their money.”

Some also question the way the Chetzemoka performs on the water. Nelson, who rides the boat when she commutes to Olympia, said she, like many Islanders, has seen the boat make large sweeps as it crosses the short channel, and she’s concerned about why.

The Kwa-di Tabil boats, ferry officials say, each have two powerful, 3,000-horsepower engines, which work well on the longer Port Townsend-Coupeville route. But on Vashon, the boat’s large engines have become a problem.

The Point Defiance-Tahlequah run isn’t long enough for the Chetzemoka’s engines to reach their preferred operating temperature, said Paul Brodeur, WSF’s director of vessel maintenance and preservation until he took a job with the county in July.

Operating the boat at a lower temperature can mean a shortened life for the engines, Brodeur said. What’s more, it doesn’t allow excess oil in the exhaust engine to burn off, which could result in a fire. The state believed excess oil caused such a fire in February but later said a cleaning solvent in the engine was to blame.

Nonetheless, ferry officials decided the Chetzemoka had to be operated differently on the water. For about four months, captains ran the boat’s propellers against one another, essentially pushing and pulling the boat at the same time.

“It’s almost like driving with the parking break on,” Brodeur said.

The method, he said, consumed slightly more fuel but kept the engines at a better operating temperature. In addition, a couple times a day the Chetzemoka would make a large arc across the water, rather than go straight across, a tactic that bewildered many riders but kept operating temperatures up, officials said.

In June, WSF changed tactics slightly. Instead of running the Chetzemoak with higher RPMs during the crossing, the crew began pushing the boat into the dock with more force than usual to run it higher while docked.

“Running those engines hard into the dock is allowing the temperature to stay put and not accumulate oil,” Brodeur said.

Moseley said the Chetzemoka is still being pushed hard into the dock, and officials are pleased with the results. In fact, Moseley believes it could be a permanent solution.

“It keeps the engines to the temperature we need them to be. … I think we are finding some better fuel efficiency,” he said.

However, WSF statistics show the Chetzemoka’s fuel consumption increased slightly after the dock method was implemented, from 65 and 66 gallons per hour in April and May to 67 and 69 gallons per hour in June and July.

The large engines could also come at a cost. In their letter to Smith, Moseley and Hammond said the state anticipates “some additional maintenance or life cycle costs due to operating higher horsepower engines than is required for this route.”

Nelson said she believes there will be talk of retrofitting the Chetzemoka with smaller engines.

“We’re going to have to take a serious look at it,” she said.

Like Smith, Nelson questioned whether poor decisions were made when designing the Kwa-di Tabil class, which was based off a Massachusetts ferry called the Island Home.

She and other state officials say the three boats were built in a rush — two of them needed to get on the water quickly to replace the Steel Electric ferries that were pulled from service. To save time, the state used an existing ferry’s design rather than start from scratch and built three nearly identical boats rather than construct a different one for the shorter Vashon route.

“It was a bad year and a half,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t excuse everything, but it was a time when we were looking at how we construct boats quickly and get them on the water.”

Now, Nelson said, the state needs to examine the issues with the ferries closely and look forward to how it can use the boats efficiently.

“We’ll have to take a look at … what are our options,” Nelson said. “I can go into angry mode, but it doesn’t fix anything. We need to sit down and work this through.”


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