The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

USA Today raises concerns about WSF's aging ferries

Nation's fleet of ferries has some old-timers at work

ORIENT POINT, N.Y. — The Susan Anne departs from an eastern Long Island dock with a deck full of cars and dozens of passengers, and sails smoothly for 80 minutes across the Long Island Sound to New London, Conn.

Built in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was president and The Beatles first came to America, the 250-foot-long Susan Anne is one of many old boats in the nation's aging ferry fleet. Most are at least decades old, and some were built before World War II.

Ferries such as the 44-year-old Susan Anne are at the heart of a spirited debate among engineers and public officials about when — or even if — old boats reach an age when they can no longer operate safely. Washington state is mulling mandatory retirement for its ferries, and Greece now requires ferries to be taken out of service after 30 years. But many experts say that age is just a number for a well-maintained ferry, and that public safety isn't an issue.

In November, Paula Hammond, Washington state's transportation secretary, ordered four 80-year-old ferries removed from service after corrosion was found in two boats' steel hulls. A month earlier, 160 cracks had been found in the four boats' hulls, but only one posed a structural concern, says Paul Brodeur of Washington State Ferries, the state agency that owns 28 ferries and operates the nation's largest system.

The Coast Guard, which oversees the safety of most U.S. ferries, says the corrosion was "a major concern," but not severe enough to cause the ferries to sink. Extensive corrosion could cause a boat to capsize or sink by allowing water to leak in through a hole in the hull.

Hammond decided not to repair the boats and ordered them permanently removed from service because "safety is our number one priority." A special inspection of 14 other old ferries found nine that needed steel replaced or repaired.

Hammond says that "keeping boats for 80 years is not going to happen again." Washington legislators aim to develop a vessel-replacement strategy that replaces boats at 60 years, she says.

By that standard, more than one quarter of the USA's ferry fleet would face retirement in the next 20 years, a development that could cost governments and private operators an estimated $1 billion or more for replacement.

A USA TODAY analysis of Department of Transportation data shows that, in 2006, 23% of 625 ferries for which age information is available were 40 years or older; 5% were 60 years or older. The oldest is the Adirondack, built in 1913. It sails Lake Champlain between Burlington, Vt., and Port Kent, N.Y.

Lots of passengers

Ferries are a vital part of America's transportation system, carrying more than 97 million passengers annually in 38 states. About 24 million ride each year on Washington State Ferries' extensive system.

New York's Staten Island Ferry shuttles about 20 million passengers annually. Ferries operated by the Texas Department of Transportation carry more than 8 million passengers annually, mostly in the Galveston and Corpus Christi areas.

Experts are divided on the danger that old ferries present. Some say that ferries, like old bridges and tunnels, are part of the country's aging infrastructure, and that many may need to be retired to ensure passenger safety.

Metal-fatigue expert Dave Hoeppner says many U.S. ferries are too old, prone to metal fatigue and corrosion, and probably should be retired. "Ferries are in the true dark ages related to fatigue," says Hoeppner, a mechanical engineer who is a professor at the University of Utah and has consulted for the Navy, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration. "I still ride them but keep the life jackets within view at all times."

But many don't believe in a retirement age for ferries, because design, maintenance and operating conditions vary. They say ferries' steel hulls are designed to withstand the rigors of age, and with proper maintenance, refurbishment and inspection, can sail for many decades without compromising passenger safety. The Coast Guard regularly inspects ferries and says they are safe to travel on.

"Ferries generally lead fairly benign structural lives," says Paul Miller a professor and naval architect at the U.S. Naval Academy. "If the vessel has been well designed, well maintained and meets current regulations, it should have an indefinite structural life."

Others agree that old age by itself shouldn't be a concern. Rik van Hemmen, vice president of a marine consulting and engineering firm in Red Bank, N.J., says, "There are plenty of ships 50 years old that are in better structural condition than those 15 years old."

John Gilbert Jr., a marine engineer for a firm of naval architects in Hingham, Mass., says that "just because a ferry is old, it doesn't mean it's used up its useful life." The U.S ferry fleet is "probably the safest in the world," he says.

"The bridges you drive your car on probably don't see as good maintenance as that done by ferry operators," he says.

Transportation historian Brian Cudahy says he cannot recall a fatal U.S. ferry accident since 1900 that was caused by failure of a boat's structure or its maintenance.

But in developing countries, aging and often overloaded ferries have capsized and killed thousands in the past few decades.

In February 2006, about 1,000 passengers were killed when a 36-year-old Egyptian ferry capsized in the Red Sea. More than 1,800 died in September 2002 when a Senegalese ferry sank off the coast of Gambia. In November 1999, a Chinese ferry sank near Yantai, killing 282 people.

Outside the USA, several governments and boat operators are retiring older ferries.

Just north of the Washington border in British Columbia, private ferry operator BC Ferries has begun a program to modernize its fleet, which consists of 36 boats with an average age of 34 years. BC Ferries plans to replace 26 boats within the next 15 years "to provide the best in safety and comfort" for passengers.

George MacPherson, president of the Canadian boatbuilding union Shipyard General Worker's Federation of British Columbi., says 50-year-old ferries should be retired for safety reasons. Ferries operating in rough water, such as those between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, might be retired sooner, he says.

Ed Kent, who has consulted on ferries for local governments in Newfoundland and Labrador, says they wear out sooner. "Once a ferry hits 35 years old, you're playing Russian roulette with the safe operation of the fleet."

Consultant Andrew Kendrick, vice president of BMT Fleet Technology, in 2006 advised the government of Newfoundland and Labrador to replace all ferries older than 30 years with newer boats.

"As vessels get older, they need more maintenance, but maintenance budgets never keep pace," says Kendrick.

Change after tragedy

Greek law mandated the retirement of ferries 35 years or older, but it was changed to 30 years or older after 80 lives were lost in the sinking of a 34-year-old ferry off the coast of Paros in September 2000.

Twice every five years as part of a broader inspection program, Washington State ferries are pulled out of the water and inspected for about eight hours by two to four Coast Guard inspectors, says Lt. Commander Todd Howard, the Coast Guard's chief of domestic vessel inspection in Seattle.

Two inspectors use flashlights to visually inspect each boat's structure. Inspectors are not seeing fatigue cracks in ships on a routine basis, says Howard.

"Finding cracks with the naked eye is extremely difficult," but visual inspections "are adequate," Howard says. Many cracks are found when inspectors find moisture or water seeping through, he says.

If rust or pitting is found, inspectors may use ultrasonic tests. The tests measure steel thickness but are "not an end all, be all," because they don't detect cracks and might not detect some pitting, Howard says.

Taking a look

Jim Matthews, a mechanical engineer from Canada, says such tests aren't always reliable. Whether an inspection is visual or done with detection equipment, "you absolutely miss cracks in inspections," he says. When steel is brittle, "a very small defect can sink the vessel in catastrophic failure."

Bruce Hutchison, of The Glosten Associates, a Seattle firm of naval architects, says weight growth of old ferries is a concern. Old ferries are repaired, renovated and modernized, and various systems and equipment are added to meet new regulations. The boats could become heavier than their design weight, and less stable.

Ferry operators say that the Coast Guard requires a stability assessment when such changes are made.

Peter Lauridsen, a consultant for the U.S.-based Passenger Vessel Association, which represents about 475 ferry and other passenger boat operators, says boats "can continue to operate indefinitely if well-maintained."

But the association is concerned that the Coast Guard has shifted its emphasis from marine safety to security since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"The Coast Guard shifted too far toward homeland security and placed not enough resources and emphasis on its other missions, including marine safety," says Edmund Welch, legislative director of the association.

Admiral Jim Watson, director of prevention policy at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., says the quality and the number of ferry inspections have not changed, but inspectors have been unable to meet the desired inspection times requested by passenger boat operators.

"There's been an huge amount of growth in the marine industry," Watson says, "and we're stretching our personnel resources to the limit to keep up with that growth."

In a proposed fiscal year 2009 budget submitted to Congress this month, Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen requested money to hire 276 new marine inspectors.

Adam Wronowski, vice president of Cross Sound Ferry Services, which operates the Susan Anne and seven other ferries across Long Island Sound, says he has not seen a drop-off in Coast Guard oversight over his ferries.

According to a certificate of inspection on the Susan Anne, its steel hull and internal structure were last inspected by the Coast Guard in April 2007 and passed. The next hull exam is scheduled for June 2009.

A USA TODAY reporter sailing on the Susan Anne this month saw rust in some areas of the car deck and the bow. Wronowski says the rust is not a concern and would not be visible after the ship is painted in the spring.

"We pride ourselves in the way we maintain our vessels," so age is not an issue with the Susan Anne or his company's other boats, he says. "Age is only an issue if a vessel has not been maintained well."

In Burlington, Lake Champlain Ferries operations manager Heather Stewart says the company has no plans to replace the nation's oldest ferry, the Adirondack, or any of the company's nine boats.

The company's ferries operate safely because "we have an aggressive maintenance program and replace parts before they get fatigued," she says.

The Adirondack now sits out of service at the dock. The 1913 boat wasn't designed to accommodate today's tall trucks, so it isn't used on Lake Champlain Ferries' winter routes.

But beginning in May, as it has done every summer since 1954, the Adirondack will carry cars and passengers. Other company ferries will carry trucks on the 80-minute journey across Lake Champlain from Burlington to Port Kent.

In five years, on Jan. 15, 2013, the company expects to celebrate the Adirondack's 100th birthday.

The number of U.S. ferries in operation built in each decade:
No age available
Source: USA TODAY analysis of 2006 Transportation Department data

Number of ferries
North Carolina
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
Rhode Island
South Carolina
West Virginia

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