Washington State Ferry officials reported today that “It could be the first or second week in February before the Port Townsend-Whidbey Island ferry routes offer vehicle service again.”

WSF has pulled the 80-year old Illahee and Klickitat from service for hull inspections after “serious metal pitting” was found on one of her sister ships, the Quinault, while it was in dry dock.

The Quinault is expected to return to service in February, 2008 and the Illahee might return in January depending upon what issues are uncovered during inspection. Dry dock for the Klickitat has not been scheduled as of yet.

Responding to WSF officials who claimed that the more serious problems were obfuscated by the hull’s paint, State Representative Lynne Kessler (D-Hoquiam) asked why the ferries had been “continually repainted without looking for problems underneath.”

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond explained that certain inspections were not performed on these vessels because until 18 months ago WSF was planning on replacing all four 1927-era Steel-Electric Class boats (including the Nisqually, also out of service). However, the decision to keep the smaller Keystone Terminal changed all of WSF’s plans, leaving them without any short-term options.

Troubled Nichols Bros. Boatbuilders has reportedly offered to construct a 216-foot-long 54-car ferry for $20 million using an already-developed design, however it could take upwards of 4 years to produce a ferry using a brand-new design.

Chief Executive Matt Nicholshas stated the new boat “would be maneuverable in the narrow Keystone ship channel, carry up to 325 passengers, and would travel at about the same speed as the older vessels do on the run now.”

The Steel-Electric Class boats carry 75 cars and more than 600 passengers.

State Representative Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor) has questioned whether a smaller boat would be able to accommodate planned and future traffic growth and no decision was made by the end of the meeting.

State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camino Island), chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, as well as State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond have both expressed interest in the quicker solution suggested by Nichols Bros. Boatbuilders.