Ken Dahlstedt And The New Guemes Island Ferry

In 2014, mainly because of high maintenance costs, the Board of Skagit County Commissioners (BOCC) commissioned a study of the Guemes Island Ferry. Three options were given, two were basically repowering or refurbishment, one was to build a new conventional diesel ferry, with latest technology engines, at an estimated cost of $8.4 million. The size of the ferry would remain about the same, 22 cars as the vessel had not, on a year round basis, operated at capacity. The study was done by the Elliott Bay Design Group and they had a ready design to supply for the estimated $8.4 million. Within months of the completion of the study, Ken Dahlstedt heard about the Norwegian Ferry System’s introduction of a 120 car all-electric vessel, the Ampére. Dahlstedt went for this design saying that the Guemes Ferry needed this new technology and that he was ready to show that Skagit County could take on those Norwegians. This was to be one of his legacies to Skagit County.

Glosten Associates, also of Seattle, was chosen to design the new vessel. They came up with five design options for the propulsion. Three were more conventional diesels, one a hybrid electric and the last all-electric. They also came up with a much larger ferry, 32 cars, which the ridership data did not support except during the peak summer months. The cost for this new all electric design was estimated at $29 million, a figure beyond anything that the islanders or the County could afford. Research on the all-electric design also showed that as a new technology, there were operational issues which took the all-electric Norwegian vessel out of service several times.  The State supported Norwegian Ferry System has 44 vessels and is paid for with taxes on all 5.5 million Norwegians.  They have back-up ferries when the all- electric vessel was out of service.  Skagit County has one ferry, no back-up for the all-electric design once in service,  and the price tag for the new vessel was enormous, as with any new technology.

Skagit County was able to secure one pledge of $7.5 million toward the new design. This was from Washington State’s County Road Administration Board (CRAB). This money came with strings attached, which was that CRAB wanted the County to essentially come up with matching funds over the life of the 20 year loan. Skagit proposed a new capital replacement addition to the ticket fare and a property tax increase averaging about $500.00 per year per parcel, but only on Guemes Island. The vessel capital replacement charge is used on the state ferries at about 25 cents a ticket. The Guemes ticket capital charge component is $2.50 per ticket. County wide tax increases have been used in the State to fund the passenger vessels of King County, but this tax was levied county wide. The Skagit County Commissioners did not want to levy a tax for the Guemes Island Ferry county wide because the ferry is an unpopular subject east of the Swinomish Channel Many islanders opposed such a narrow application of the property tax and it was dropped at the last minute with the CRAB Board reducing the amount of the loan from $10 million to the $7.5 million.To date, despite applying to Federal and State sources, this is the only major loan promise attained for the new vessel.This money is only paid to the County after the new vessel is completed and in annual increments over 20 years.

The County did get a $2.0 million grant from the State to complete the design.Through changes in the design, dropping the size to 28 cars from 32, and moving to a diesel-electric hybrid, the cost of the vessel has been reduced to about $18.9 million.The county estimates they are some $8.5 million short for the new vessel. 

At one time, had the County been more open to the repowering concept, there was the opportunity to apply for a grant from the Volkswagen diesel pollution settlement fund.The County chose not to apply for any money from this fund even though new, less polluting engines could have been paid for by the Volkswagen fund.

One Norwegian ferry, converted to diesel electric hybrid with lithium batteries, had a severe fire in the battery room taking that vessel out of service for an estimated nine months.The plan of the County is to sell the current Guemes within a year of placing the new ferry in service.As the new design incorporates changes to the slip width, it is not clear that the current Guemes will fit the new slip.The normal back-up when the current Guemes is out of service is to charter a foot passenger boat from Arrow launch.The prospect of the new all electric or electric hybrid being out of service for up to nine months with no car ferry back-up is a prospect unappealing to many islanders with concerns ranging from inconvenience to safety in a medical emergency.

As stated in multiple surveys conducted by the County, the major priority of the islanders has been reliability so that repowering with lower emission diesels and new outdrives would achieve the goals of high reliability and lower maintenance costs.By repowering, at an estimated $2.5 to $3.0 million, the life of the existing vessel could easily and safely be extended for 10 years.The important advantage of this approach is that the new electric or electric hybrid technology in car ferries would have time to be implemented by others with the cost of new technology coming down and typically reliability going up. This approach was consistently opposed by Ken Dahlstedt.The County continues to apply for grants for a new electric or electric hybrid vessel but without success in today’s markets.

Of note is that Ron Wesen is the commissioner for District 1, where the Guemes Ferry operates.He has taken a very passive approach to Dahlstedt’s decisions about the Guemes Ferry.In the end, most islanders, who tend to be politically green, want to have an electric or hybrid electric vessel, but many are not enamored with the concept today of being beta testers for this new technology in a single vessel fleet.

-Stephen Orsini

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