SE leaders concerned about ferry plan change

This poster from the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council promoted the Alaska Class Ferry over road-building.

This poster from the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council promoted the Alaska Class Ferry over road-building.

You can tell a project’s in trouble when its website gets pulled off the ‘net. That’s what’s happened to the Alaska Class Ferry, which had a site including design elements, public comments and other information.

It’s down because Gov. Sean Parnell ordered an end to work on the 350-foot vessel, and begin design of smaller, less expensive ferries. (Hear the governor’s announcement and read about his decision.)

The announcement surprised Sen.Dennis Egan, a Juneau Democrat who was among those pushing to fund the original project.

“We’re all upset that we weren’t informed way early in this process about what they were going to do and different scenarios that they were trying to come up with,” Egan says. “We didn’t have a clue.”

And it’s not just the timing. Representative Beth Kerttula, another Juneau Democrat, says the new plan doesn’t make sense.

Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula

“This is a real change of direction and frankly, I’m not on board. And I’m talking to the other members of the Southeast delegation and doubt many of them, if any, are either,” Kerttula says.

The governor said change was needed because price estimates rose by up to 40 percent. Ferry officials had warned the appropriated $120 million was not enough.

“The new contemplated design is more of a streamlined, simple vessel,” says Capt. Mike Neussl, the state Transportation Department’s deputy commissioner for marine operations. That means he runs the ferry system.

“The cost savings will come in the simplicity of no crew quarters, a smaller overall vessel and less amenities in terms of what the vessel contains,” he says.

Other design elements, such as food service and quiet rooms for the sick and elderly, are also off the table. Some of those features were meant to allow the ship more flexibility, so it could service more routes.

Many of the state’s ferries are old, and the Alaska Class Ferry was part of the replacement plan. Kerttula worries changing direction will push back the construction date.

“This really delays us. And that’s maybe more than anything something that aggravates me. We’ve been working hard, we were up and running, it was going on and here we are with a delay,” she says.

The state will keep its architect, Seattle’s Elliott Bay Design Group. And it will continue working with its expected builder, Ketchikan’s Alaska Ship and Drydock.

Neussl says contracts will have to be renegotiated before work can start.

“The design process for the new ship won’t be as complicated as the Alaska Class Ferry, so it shouldn’t take as long to get to the full detailed design on that. But I doubt that it will be done by next July, when the Alaska Class Ferry design was supposed to be done,” Neussl says.

The governor called for building two smaller ships with the money appropriated for one larger vessel. Both would operate in Lynn Canal, connecting Haines, Skagway and Juneau. That’s the same route as was planned for the larger ship.

A drawing of the larger proposed Alaska Class Ferry from Elliott Bay Design Group.

The Malaspina, which carries about 90 vehicles per sailing, covers the busy summer season.

Egan says the new ships’ projected 40-vehicle capacity is not enough.

“Well, Hell! Do you know how many vehicles get on in Juneau and go to Skagway and Haines in the summer? Those ships are full,” he says.

The chairman of Parnell’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board says the announcement caught him by surprise, too.

Robert Venables of Haines calls it, quote, “A very disappointing and dramatic change of direction.” He’s traveling and couldn’t be reached by phone. But via email, he said the last board meeting, about a month ago, included no hint of a redesign.

He’s not alone in his surprise.

“It’s not the direction that we were looking at and we have been working on it for quite a while,” says Skagway’s Mike Korsmo, who serves on the Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

He wonders whether a smaller ship could handle the strong winds and rough waters of Lynn Canal winters.

“When we were looking at the Alaska Class, we were looking at it for the weather conditions, the routes it was going to run and the capacity it would need to handle. So if we’re going to smaller vessels, then we definitely have to take a serious look at how that’s going to work,” Korsmo says.

Despite their concerns, both board members say they’ll work with the governor and Legislature toward a new design.

One reason Parnell gave for the change is to make sure new ferries are built at Ketchikan’s shipyard.

The ferry Matanuska is tied up at Alaska Ship and Drydock, where the smaller Alaska Class Ferry is expected to be built.

“That was just wonderful to hear his recommitment to build the ferries here in the state,” says Alaska Ship and Drydock’s Doug Ward.

He says about 170 people work at the facility.

He expects other ship-building jobs, so any ferry construction delays won’t affect the workforce.

“It’s a state-owned shipyards, these are state-owned vessels, these are Alaskans building the vessels,” Ward says. “And that was one of the primary goals, to create new employment opportunities in year-round family-wage careers and to attract new invest.”

The new plan will undergo further discussion once the legislative session begins and the ferry advisory board holds its next meeting.

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