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Originally published Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Ferries flunk inspection

They've worked 20 years past their expected life span, were ordered into retirement in 2001 and yet remained active up until last month...

Seattle Times staff reporter

They've worked 20 years past their expected life span, were ordered into retirement in 2001 and yet remained active up until last month despite cracks, holes and pitting.

But the curtain may be close to falling on Washington state's four oldest ferries.

Emergency inspections on two of the 80-year-old Steel Electric-class ferries on Seattle's Harbor Island have uncovered more extensive pitting and corrosion than expected, posing a dilemma for state officials who must now decide whether repairing the vessels would be a wise investment.

Opting to buy new boats could leave the Port Townsend-Keystone route without car-ferry service for two years while the boats are built, said Traci Brewer-Rogstad, deputy executive director of the ferry system.

The Steel Electrics are the only car ferries capable of navigating Keystone's narrow and shallow Whidbey Island harbor.

The route has been served by a passenger-only ferry since Nov. 20, when Washington State Ferries yanked all four Steel Electric vessels out of service because of safety concerns after discovering pitting in one of their hulls.

Ferry officials said Saturday that after peeling 70 percent of the paint off the Quinault, workers discovered nearly half of the boat's steel hull needs to be replaced. Initial inspection of another boat, the Illahee, showed similar damage.

It could cost $7 million to replace just the damaged hull uncovered so far on the Quinault, said Brewer-Rogstad. A comparable new boat could cost from $20 million to more than $30 million, she estimated.

"The scope of work is growing, the time to repair is growing, and the cost is growing," she said.

Even with repairs, she said, the aging boats may have only another two years of life in them.

Brewer-Rogstad would not rule out fixing the boats, saying "it's up to policymakers to decide where is the tipping point — where you are getting bang for the buck."

Ferry officials had planned to have the Quinault and the Illahee back in service by February, but Brewer-Rogstad said that has been pushed back until at least March.

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She said the boats will not return to service without the damage to the hulls fixed.

The Steel Electric vessels were built in 1927 and were expected to last 60 years. They can carry more than 600 passengers and about 60 automobiles. They operate predominantly in the Port Townsend-Keystone and San Juan Islands interisland routes.

The Klickitat was pulled from the Port Townsend-Keystone route and was replaced by the Snohomish, which carries only passengers.

The switch has disrupted travel for residents and cut business for retailers in Port Townsend.

A fourth Steel Electric boat, the Nisqually, was kept mostly as a spare.

The state Legislature in 2001 authorized construction of replacement boats, but no money was allocated.

Instead, the state set aside $347 million to build four bigger car ferries — money that ferry officials and Gov. Christine Gregoire are considering diverting to buy replacements for the ancient Steel Electrics.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423

or ksong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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