As highlighted in a news article today, the window for a possible return of Washington State Ferries’ 80-year-old Steel-Electric class vessels has come to a close. A Certificate of Inspection, in effect the US Coast Guard’s permission for a passenger vessel to operate, has expired. The washington Legislature has mandated the sale of these ferries by this Summer. We now know that these vessels will be uneconomical to repair and put back into service in US waters.

We now have coming out of the shadows a number of people and groups who think they have good plans for using these vessels in the future. The state could choose to sell the old ferries for other uses, or to use as ferries in third-world countries. They could sell them for their scrap-metal value. However, the groups that want to use these ferries have it in mind that the State will donate the ferries to them.

One fallacy in the concept of “free” ferries is that they truly are not free. There are a number of groups who have tried to “save” other ferries (the Kalakala, the San Mateo, and the Olympic come to mind) before finding that the costs of restoring an old ferryboat are many tens of times the costs of restoring, say, an old car. There is not only the historical preservation aspect, but also the engineering aspect, the costs of ensuring the boat stays afloat, and finding a place to moor the ferry. Even in the case of one group that would like to sink one of the boats for use as an underwater diving park, there will be many costs involved in cleaning up the ferry and stripping it of hazardous materials so it doesn’t become an environmental problem.

In one case, the City of Port Townsend would like to turn the M/V Kittitas into some sort of community center, or a restaurant, or downtown parking, or museum, or, well, I’m not sure even they know what they want it for. Other than they want the old historic ferry to remain in town. While that is a nice sentiment to have for the old gal, I would hope the city leaders would have a real idea for what they want to accomplish before they sink too many scarce dollars into the sinkhole. Many people with much more definitive plans have lost their investment with little to show for it.

Port Townsend is a place with a lot of potential, but no one willing to make a decision as to which way to turn. Their citizens have conflicting needs. They state a desire for more tourism, but resist more people coming into town on the ferry. They want to share their rich history, but have obviously not maintained the waterfront where this history happened. They want better access to Seattle and other Puget Sound areas, but resist any expansion of the ferry terminals on either side of their route.

Port Townsend is a great place to visit and to live. The town does need some leadership and to finally come to some consensus about its future. I just hope that it doesn’t let a desire to keep one of these ferries around cost it too much money, or allow it to loose sight of other worthy goals for community development. There is much more to ferry restoration than meets the eye.