Are taxpayers getting ferry fleeced or receiving good value?

by: Essex Porter Updated:

SEATTLE - Washington state is buying new ferries to replace an aging fleet.

But a recent state audit said Washington taxpayers spent from $7.5 to $42 million more than other ferry buyers for the six newest ferries.

"You can say that we could build ferries cheaper," said State Auditor Troy Kelley, commenting on the report.

Take the ferry Chetzemoka, for example. The 64-car ferry cost $80 million. Its design is based on the ferry Island Home, which was built on the Gulf Coast for $43 million.

The audit report said much, but not all of the difference is because of change orders and a fast-track construction schedule.

However, the report also blames a state law that limits competition for Washington shipyards.

That law requires ferries be built in Washington state.

"In Washington, there is no other game in town," said Kelley.

The Build-in-Washington law was last renewed five years ago with strong bipartisan support in the state legislature.

"Well it makes sense," said Gig Harbor Democratic State Representative Larry Seaquist. "It's Washington state taxpayers' money that's going into the ferries."

State figures show that a $150 million ferry contract creates 1,335 jobs and $90 million in wages.

Still Senator Doug Ericksen is willing to risk seeing the ferry contracts go out of state

"Well you have to remember that we live in a free-market society,” Ericksen said.

The audit report points out that experience and economies of scale allow Washington shipyards to lower the cost of subsequent ferries in the same series.

For example, the local sister ships to the Chetzemoka were built at a much lower cost.

And there's a growing consensus among lawmakers that the local shipyards will not get a monopoly on the next round of ferries.

Instead, Washington is likely to take an approach closer to the state of Alaska's -- giving local shipyards a preference but not a guarantee.

The House Transportation Committee Chair looks favorably on that approach.

"If we can get a better bid and the same product," said Mercer Island Democrat Judy Clibborn. "Then yes, I would be open to that."

And shipyard workers are confident they can compete.

"I'm sure we could be competitive without (the guarantee),”said Production Manager Kale Kramer. "But we do like the relationship that we have with Washington state."