Transportation Committees question DOT Commissioner on decision to scrap Alaska Class Ferry project

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

A design concept report for a new Alaska Marine Highway shuttle ferry is expected in the next couple of weeks. That’s DOT-speak for a description of the proposed vessels to replace the Alaska Class Ferry.

State Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Pat Kemp told lawmakers Thursday the Alaska Class Ferry actually started life as a shuttle boat about 2006.

“It had morphed into a vessel somewhat bigger than the Aurora class ferry. It was at 350 feet, it was almost a Taku-size ferry but it did not have staterooms. It had crew staterooms but it did not have passenger staterooms.”

Kemp took the hot seat in a hearing before the House and Senate Transportation Committees.

Legislators wanted to find out why Governor Sean Parnell recently pulled the plug on the so-called Alaska Class Ferry, which is so far into the planning process that a construction contract was to be awarded in July.

Kemp blamed public involvement for the growing ship. He was not with the department then, but between 2008 and 2010, a DOT steering committee held a number of public hearings in communities on ferry routes to hear what the public wanted in its ferry system.

Captain John Falvey is AMHS General Manager. He says Marine Highway officials were responding to the public.

“It slowly but surely got more costly than the 120 million dollars that we had started with from the very, very beginning.”

Kemp was appointed acting DOT commissioner in August, and Gov. Parnell asked him to take a look at the project. By then it was estimated the proposed ship could cost $150-million to $170-million. Kemp said he was directed to find a replacement.

Recently named commissioner, Kemp said he favors heavy sea-worthy shuttles that he called roll-on / roll-off, with cars loading from the ends of the vessels, instead of the side.

The governor’s announcement that the Alaska Class Ferry project had been scrapped sent a big wave throughout Marine Highway communities as well as the Marine Transportation Advisory Board. The MTAB was created in statute to represent ferry system towns and work closely with department officials. But Kemp did not talk directly with the committee.

House Transportation Chair Peggy Wilson of Wrangell pulled out a legislative legal opinion that said Kemp should have notified MTAB that DOT was planning to abandon the Alaska Class Ferry project.

“Since the MTAB has its power set in statute and the Marine Highway operations have continued to improve during that time I would hope that the department will continue to seek council from the MTAB committee and at least have that communication going back and forth with them.”

Kemp did say he recently sent a letter to MTAB members about the decision.

He told lawmakers he expected consultants to have a concept for the proposed shuttle ferry soon, but it may be November before there is an actual design.