IFA wants to sell spare ship to state ferry system

Should the Alaska Marine Highway buy a used ship from the independent Inter-Island Ferry Authority? Supporters of the idea say it could save money for both operations.

The ferry Stikine once sailed a summer route from Coffman Cove, on Prince of Wales Island, to Wrangell and Petersburg. Those runs were cancelled in 2009 because they weren’t much used. The Stikine took over Hollis-to-Ketchikan sailings from the older ferry, the Prince of Wales. That left their owner, the Inter-Island Ferry Authority, with an extra ship.

“And I’m hoping to convince some of my colleagues to maybe look at buying that and

The stern of the ferry Prince of Wales, which the IFA wants to sell to the state. Photo courtesy Inter-Island Ferry Authority.

helping the Inter-Island Ferry Authority out at the same time so they don’t have to carry the expense of maintaining that boat and not using it,” says state Senator Albert Kookesh, who represents much of Prince of Wales Island, where the ferry authority is based.

The Angoon Democrat is interested in using the spare IFA vessel to fill in for the state ferry system’s smaller ships.

“When the Aurora or LeConte break down or have to go in for service, they hire Allen Marine. And all they have is catamarans, and there’s many a time when those things can’t make it around Point Retreat, for instance, because of the weather, he says.

Kookesh says buying the ship could be far cheaper than building an Alaska Class Ferry, though he supports completing the first in that design.

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority says it spends about $300,000 a year storing, maintaining and providing security for its unused ship. That’s about 8 percent of its annual budget. The IFA is also paying off debt from vessel construction.

“We’re trying to trim costs and limit the amount of money that we require from the state for an annual subsidy,” says Bruce Jones of Petersburg, the IFA’s general manager.

He says the Prince of Wales is only used as a fill-in vessel when its sister ship is being repaired.

“So if we can get those two things taken care of, there’s a possibility that the IFA can stand on its own, unless of course the fuel prices continue to go through the roof,” Jones says.

There is a significant difference between the IFA’s vessels and Alaska Class Ferries.

The yet-to-be built state ships are expected to cost in the range of $120 million each. The Prince of Wales was built for a sixth of that amount, and a recent survey showed its value as far lower.

That’s in part because the Prince of Wales is smaller, carrying about a third as many passengers and half as many vehicles. Jones says it also has fewer amenities.

“It doesn’t have any cabins for crew quarters, but it could be used as a day boat by the Alaska Marine Highway System, similar to what we use it for,” he says.

State ferry chief Mike Neussl of Juneau says he hasn’t been contacted by lawmakers or the IFA, so he can’t comment on a possible purchase.

Marine Transportation Advisory Board Chairman Robert Venables of Haines also hasn’t been contacted. But if asked, he’s willing to take a look.

“On the surface, there does seem to be some benefit to having a newer vessel in the fleet,” Venables says.

He’d want to know more, such as whether it’s compatible with marine highway docks and ramps.

But he’s most interested in building Alaska Class Ferries. They’re being designed for the northern and southern ends of Southeast’s marine highway system.

“Generally, we’re seeing an increased need with a number of the mechanical situations and delays from the fleet that really I think highlights the need for an improved fleet. And the Alaska Class vessel is going to be one of the most important things we do at the marine highway system and MTAB this year,” he says.

IFA officials met recently with several Southeast lawmakers.

Senator Kookesh, who chairs his chamber’s Transportation Committee, says he’ll pursue the idea.

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