Marine highway plans to replace fast ferry engines

The fast ferry Chenega pulling into Whittier in August. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld.

Alaska’s Marine Highway System is asking the Legislature to budget $22 million for new fast ferry engines. But it may not use the money if a lawsuit against the shipbuilder succeeds.

Engines on the Fairweather and Chenega have shown signs of excessive wear that could stop them from sailing within a few years. State officials tried to negotiate a solution, and then filed suit.

They also asked the court for a preliminary injunction forcing the builders to provide replacements soon. That’s because the engines could wear out before the issue goes before a jury.

Ferry chief Mike Neussl says experts check the engines on a regular basis.

“The Fairweather just underwent an inspection and was granted authority for another year. So we are good through the summer of 2012 operating season on Fairweather’s engines,” Neussl says.

The Chenega will be inspected in January and its engine cylinders could be bored out to remove damage. But little more can be done for the Fairweather’s power system.

The $22 million would replace one ship’s engines. It is part of the Governor Sean Parnell’s capital budget request for the fiscal year starting in July.

Neussl says it would not be a direct appropriation of state money.

“Those are federal receipts. That’s really seeking authority from the Legislature to be able to use federal funds to replace fast ferry engines, should that become necessary,” he says.

He says replacement engines would likely come from the company that built the current set. That’s because few choices are available.

“They have safely powered the ship, moved a lot of people and moved a lot of vehicles. It’s just a longevity issue and the ability for them to last as long as the ships last. That’s really the heart of the issue here,” he says.

It’s not known when the judge will rule on the preliminary injunction against shipbuilder, Derecktor Shipyards, and the subcontractors that built the engines

The fast ferries each carry up to 250 passengers and 36 vehicles. The Fairweather was built in 2004 and the Chenega in 2005.

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