|The Saga of the Citrus Class
The story of the Issaquah Class ferries would be worthy of a novel or a mini-series. By the time
the six boats had all hit the waters of Puget Sound, lawsuits had been filed, political scandals
had been broken open, and environmental laws blatantly ignored.
At the center of it was Washington State Ferries, which actually had little to do with any of it
except for having been handed the flawed ferries, which they desperately needed. The agency
got a bum rap over the Issaquahs, when really the fault could be squarely leveled at the builder
and the legislature.
The vessels were constructed by Marine Power and Equipment, a company that had never taken
on anything as large as building a ferry, let alone six of them. They received the contract over a
New Orleans shipyard for reasons not clearly explained. Later it was revealed that several of the
senators who pushed for MP&E to get the contract owed the company thousands of dollars in
private boat repairs. In addition, the company reaped a huge profit--at taxpayer expense--while
using highly questionable construction methods, materials and unproven computer systems.
Almost at once the problems with the vessels became evident. Their interiors began to wear
almost immediately, but more disturbing were the mechanical problems. The vessels routinely
rammed docks, causing millions in damages. In addition they would inexplicably pull away from
the pier, in one case dropping a car into Puget Sound while three elderly passengers barely
scrambled to safety. So routine were the engine failures that the chief engineer for the ferry
system declared them unsafe and was quoted in the Seattle newspapers saying that
passengers should not be near the front of the vessels while they were docking.
Lawsuits flew, with the state filing suit against MP&E and MP&E counter-suing the State. The
vessels were pulled out of service, inspected, repaired, and then pulled out again. The state
refused to accept the last of the class, the Sealth. A mere four years after entering service, the
state began pulling the computerized propulsion systems.
The State settled with Marine Power and Equipment. The State would pay MP&E a million in
compensation. In return, MP&E was to start paying the State $800,000.00 back per year
beginning in the early 1990s. By that time the company was long bankrupt, having been
slammed with fines for dumping sand blasting material directly into the Duwamish River.
In the meantime, WSF had finally accepted the Sealth in October 1984. Around the same time,
the ferries started to be rebuilt. One by one they went into the yard, emerging with an expanded
car deck which added 30 cars to their carrying capacity. In the late 1990s, the oldest of the
vessels went into the yard for a complete interior refurbishment.
Nearly 20 years after first taking to the waters, the class as a whole has settled into being a very
reliable group of ferries. They are used on many routes and after having shed their original
interiors they become an invaluable asset to the system and some of the steadiest running
ferries in the fleet.