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Washington Electric Ferry Conversion Costlier Than Expected

The effort to transition Washington state ferries from diesel engines to hybrid-electric power is proving to be more expensive than originally thought. So far, both quotes for the work have exceeded the initial $120 million state estimate.

A ferry set in front of the Seattle skyline.
(TNS) — Washington State Ferries moved closer toward converting its largest boats to hybrid-electric power last week — a changeover that promises significant emissions reductions but that will cost more than hoped and could further stretch an already thin system.

Two local shipbuilders, Vigor Shipyards in Seattle and Everett Ship Repair, offered bids last Friday to complete the conversion on three Jumbo Mark II boats — the Tacoma, the Puyallup and the Wenatchee. The ferries will be pulled out of service one at a time for nearly a year each, beginning with the first this September, when they will undergo the switch to hybrid as well as significant midlife maintenance work that was already due.

The three boats sail primarily on the routes between Seattle and Bainbridge and Edmonds and Kingston, which last year carried a combined 7.5 million trips.

Both bids came in higher than the $120 million state engineers estimated. Vigor's was the lower of the two, at $150.1 million; Everett Ship Repair's bid was for $166.4 million.

The additional cost means state ferries will need to seek more money to complete all three boats, either in federal grants or additional funding from the state. Because the price is 25% over the engineer's estimate, ferry officials will need to justify the costs to lawmakers, a requirement when bids are 10% or more above the estimate.

But considering near universal price escalation of large infrastructure projects in the United States, driven by inflation and labor shortages, the 25% number feels reasonable, said Matthew von Ruden, director of vessels for Washington State Ferries.

"That was higher than we'd like but given what we're seeing in this market with our other projects across the agency it's relatively good," he said.

The work is currently funded with state and federal dollars and money from a federal settlement with Volkswagen, struck after the company was alleged to have cheated emissions tests.

The conversion to hybrid-electric is part of a broader push by Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature to cut emissions from the boats, which burn 19 million gallons of diesel fuel a year. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the state and Washington State Ferries is the most prolific polluter among state agencies.

The state's goal is to convert six existing ferries away from diesel engines and to build 16 new electric-powered boats, all of which would plug into onshore charging stations while cars load and unload. If successful, state officials say emissions from ferries could be cut by three-quarters.

Realizing that vision is a long way off; the Legislature has so far funded $1.3 billion of the estimated $4 billion it would take to complete the work. That available money is intended to build five of the 16 new boats, but negotiations with the previously chosen builder, Vigor, fell apart and the state has not found another company to take its place. The timeline for the first new boat already has been pushed by four years, with more delays possible.

The state requested proposals for a design-bid build contract to convert the three boats, meaning the design has mostly been done already by the state and it would be the builder's job to complete the work. That approach, over bidding out the design as well, would simplify the process, von Ruden said.

To convert the boats, crews will swap out two of the four diesel engines in the ferries for large batteries. To start, the ships will function somewhat like a hybrid vehicle, with the diesel engines charging the batteries and the power source toggling between the two. That should cut diesel fuel use by 21%, von Ruden said.

By 2026, the state hopes to have charging stations onshore at several terminals. When that work is complete, diesel emissions should be cut by 90%.

Originally, the preference was to have a retractable arm aboard each ferry that would plug into a power source on shore while vehicles were loading and unloading. But prospective builders expressed concern about the complexity of that work so the state has changed tack and now plans to put the arm on land.

The timeline for converting the ferries has slipped from original estimates when officials had optimistically predicted 2021 as the completion date for the first of the three. The delay is largely the result of funding, which finally came during the 2022 session and the Legislature's $17 billion Move Ahead transportation bill.

One major concern is how the conversion could affect service.

Ferry officials hoped to avoid keeping the boats docked during the peak summer season, but the builders made clear that was unrealistic, said von Ruden. The work on the first will likely last into August 2024. The second will then be pulled out for conversion in September 2024 on the same timeline, followed again by the third boat in September 2025.

In an ideal world, the ferry fleet would be 26 boats; in the real world, it's 21. With 19 boats needed during peak season and two boats held out at any time for maintenance, the system has very little flexibility.

"We are also very concerned about providing the best service with the resources we have," said von Ruden.

Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling said the agency is hopeful the conversion won't create headaches beyond what the state is already experiencing. All three Jumbo Mark IIs needed to come out of service anyway for maintenance, a reality of keeping the massive ships in working order.

"We've been planning for this for a long time," he said. "Is it ideal? No, but there's no ideal scenario here."

Meanwhile, the entire fleet is aging. Three boats are due for retirement, but the Legislature is spending tens of millions of dollars to keep them in service.

©2023 The Seattle Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.