With an aging fleet, Washington State Ferries says it needs 16 new ferries in the next 22 years.
The ferry system is out with a long-range plan through 2040, which calls for five new Olympic-class ferries as soon as possible, two for stabilizing the fleet and three for replacing boats that are due for retirement.
"That all adds up to a near continuous shipbuilding program from now through the life of the plan," said Matt von Ruden, WSF's director of vessel engineering and maintenance.
Including terminal upgrades and other projects, the ferry system anticipates needing $7.6 billion in capital spending by 2040, $6.7 billion of which is currently unfunded.
The state's fleet is aging, with many ferries nearing retirement at about 60 years old.
On Thursday, four boats were out of service for unplanned reasons, including the 51-year old Elwha.
Scheduled maintenance on the Elwha that was expected to cost $2.5 million has turned into a $25 million fix of corroded steel.
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"That vessel is a great example of things we're faced with for an aging fleet," von Ruden said.
The long-range plan predicts a 30 percent growth in ferry ridership between 2017 and 2040 and includes upgrading the ticketing system and expanding reservations to routes in central Puget Sound.
It also has a focus on limiting emissions from engines.
On Thursday, WSF officials took KIRO 7 into the engine room on the newest ferry in the fleet, the Suquamish, which is undergoing sea trials before starting service this fall.
Nathanial Ratcliff, WSF's staff chief engineer, said on most ships, dirty emissions go right out the smoke stack.
On the Suquamish, they go through a system that meets the EPA's tier 4 emission requirements.
"We have extra emissions controls on this vessel that actually take the pollutants down 70 percent," Ratcliff said, comparing the Suquamish to the Chimacum, the second-newest vessel in the state's fleet.
The 45-day comment period on WSF's long range plan opened this week.
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