Gov. Christine Gregoire today proposed spending $100 million to replace four aging Steel Electric Class ferries with three new boats. She said $64 million...

Gov. Christine Gregoire today proposed spending $100 million to replace four aging Steel Electric Class ferries with three new boats.

She said $64 million would come from $350 million that had been set aside for construction of other boats, and $36 million would come from money appropriated for the Mukilteo ferry terminal.

The design and building of the boats will be on an expedited schedule. Gregoire said she hopes they could be built in 14 months.

She also announced that beginning today, the state will begin passenger-only ferry service between Port Townsend and Seattle. This service would run until early January and will offer four roundtrips a day.

Pierce County has agreed to loan one of its boats to the Washington State Ferries, beginning in January, to resume car service between Keystone and Port Townsend.

“This was an emergency situation, and we’re able to be of assistance,” said Ron Klein, aide to Pierce County Executive John Ladenberg.

Under the arrangement, Washington State Ferries will have to provide an emergency backup boat for the Pierce County ferry, the 13-year-old Christine Anderson, and will pay an undetermined amount of money to lease the boat.

The lease funds will go to reduce ferry fares for Pierce County residents, Klein said.

Gregoire said there was really no other option than to replace the four 80-year-old Steel Electric boats, the Quinault, the Illahee, the Klickitat and the Nisqually.

On Monday, a Joint Transportation Committee made up of influential legislators recommended that the four Steel Electric ferries be scrapped, not fixed.

“Ferries are a simple extension of our roads,” Gregoire said today. “It needs as much attention as any road or bridge.” In fact, the Port Townsend to Keystone ferry is actually an extension of Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway.

The four Steel Electric boats were sidelined Nov. 20 when Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond determined the hulls were in such bad shape, with holes and pitting, she didn’t feel comfortable keeping them on the water. Gregoire said she fully supported Hammond’s move to pull the boats out of service.

The state had planned to fix at least three of the four ferries at a cost of about $4 million each. But late last week a further inspection of the Quinault, now in dry dock at Todd Shipyards, found more extensive pitting and corrosion than expected, driving up repair costs.

Ferry officials said that after peeling 70 percent of the ferry’s paint, workers discovered nearly half of the boat’s steel hull needed to be replaced.

That news prompted the legislators to recommend scrapping the boats.

Whidbey Island boatbuilder Matt Nichols has said he, with a consortium of two other boat builders, could build a new boat for Keystone in about a year for $20 million. He already built one for Pierce County, so he said he has a design.

But Gregoire said the new boats will be offered to any Washington shipyard. Elliott Bay Design, which designed the Pierce County boats, is being asked to come up with a design for the new state boats within two months, said Hammond. After that, there will be a four-week advertisement for bids for the new boats.

To build the new 54-car Keystone boats, Gregoire proposed to take $64 million from the nearly $350 million already approved to build four new 144-car ferries, and today she signed a contract with Todd Shipyard to build those boats. She said she didn’t know if raiding the pot for the Steel Electrics would mean the state couldn’t afford to build all four 144-car boats.

Meanwhile, the passenger ferry Snohomish, which was running between Port Townsend and Keystone, will instead run between Port Townsend and Seattle until early January. And the state contracted with a private operator, Puget Sound Express, from Port Townsend, to operate the Keystone passenger run.

The run to Seattle will take about an hour and a half, said ferry officials, and will cost the same as the Puget Sound passenger fare, or $6.70 roundtrip.

Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said she was pleased by the governor’s decision. “We’ve just begun to address the real concern about our boats,” she said. “The more we look, the more disturbed we get.”

“I’m thrilled,” added state Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. “I compliment state transportation leaders for stepping up.”

Now the state has to decide what to do with the old Steel Electric boats. The Quinault, now at Todd Shipyards, will have to be moved and will probably go to the ferry maintenance yard at Eagle Harbor until the state decides the four vessels’ fate.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com