Marine highway doesn’t want Mat-Su ferry

Some legislators are suggesting the Alaska Marine Highway System take over the ferry Susitna. The $78-million vessel was built to connect Anchorage and the lower Matanuska-Susitna Borough. But there’s no place for it to dock and it’s unclear how it will be used.

Ketchikan’s Alaska Ship and Drydock is finishing up work on the experimental ferry.

“Right now it’s undergoing sea trials. It needs to be outfitted with seats and the borough hasn’t even taken title yet of the ship,” says Mat-Su Borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan.

She says it may not get legal ownership until spring.

The ferry Susitna near completion at Alaska Ship and Drydock. Photo by Patty Sullivan, Mat-Su Borough

Eventually, it hopes to sail the ship in northern Cook Inlet — connecting Anchorage and Point MacKenzie, and possibly Kenai and Tyonek.

But no ferry ramps have been built. So officials are looking for other options.

“The borough is interested in gathering any sort of idea on how to use the ferry while we work on the landings. If the Alaska Marine Highway is interested, we’re certainly are interested in speaking with them,” she says.

She says it’s too early to say how much the borough would charge. (Read more from the borough about the Susitna.)

Juneau Senator Dennis Egan recently toured the Susitna, and he was impressed.

“Every time I go into Ketchikan and see that doggone ship sitting there, it makes me ill. I mean $78 million and it’s just sitting there,” Egan says.

Egan wants the Alaska Marine Highway System to consider using the Susitna, as a fill-in vessel or for a regular route. He recently led a delegation of Juneau lawmakers to a meeting with ferry officials.

“I’m not talking about stealing it from the Mat-Su Borough. I’m talking about the state of Alaska reimbursing the Mat-Su Borough if we can use it,” he says.

State transportation officials have looked into the craft. Ferry chief Mike Neussl says adding it to the fleet would be difficult.

“The problem really comes in trying to operate a high-speed craft that is incompatible with all of our existing shore facilities is a difficult evolution. The training, the route manuals, the certifications, the maintenance and just the start-up operation to take on a vessel like that is labor-intensive, time-consuming and expensive,” Neussl says.

The Susitna is a first-of-a-kind vessel, developed and paid for by the Navy. It can adjust its height above the water, break through ice and land on a beach.

Marine Highway General Manager John Falvey says that makes it even harder to add to the fleet.

“It’s an eight to nine to ten month process of getting certified, getting trained, getting the Coast Guard to appove all the documentation. We would most likely be up against something like that, maybe something more difficult, because it’s so unusual,” Falvey said during a recent Marine Transportation Advisory Board meeting.

Its capacity is smaller than all but one state ferry: about 20 vehicles and 135 passengers. And Neussl says even if it could be used, it wouldn’t be for long.

“Theoretically, as far as I know, the Mat-Su Borough still intends to use that as a passenger ferry in upper Cook Inlet and it will eventually go to that service. So to do all the work to make it a marine highway vessel for some route some place only to have it taken back for its intended purpose sometime later doesn’t seem cost-effective in my view,” Neussl says..

Juneau Senator Egan says he’s not convinced that’s true. And he’ll keep pursing the idea.

If training is needed, he says it should be provided. And if there are no docks that can handle the vessel, it can land on the beach.

“I think there are a lot of beaches in Southeast Alaska so that we could figure it out,” Egan says.

Other ideas have also come up.

U.S. Senator Mark Begich sent a letter to Admiral Robert Papp, the Coast Guard’s commandant, suggesting it be used for expanded Arctic operations.

“One of the issues is it’s pretty shallow water. The good news about this ferry is that you can drop it down to about a 4-foot draft, which is pretty shallow. And you can make it in deep water. You can go with a variety of ways with it,” Begich says.

Mat-Su Borough spokeswoman Sullivan says other northern uses have been put forward.

“Shell is trying to endeavor Arctic exploration of oil and the ferry has come up in those discussions,” Sullivan says.

Docking the Susitna is expensive – about $1.3 million a year in Ketchikan and more in Cook Inlet. So the borough is motivated to see the ship used, once it takes possession.

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