New ferry a “stretch Lituya,” not a “stretch LeConte”

A drawing of a recent design of the larger Alaska Class Ferry created by Eliott Bay Design of Seattle.

More details are emerging about the Alaska Class Ferry redesign. The smaller shuttles could have partially open car decks. And three, rather than two, might be built.

State officials say they’re looking at more ways to cut the cost of what will be the Lynn Canal shuttle ferries. They’re what will replace a partially-designed ship that could handle a larger variety of routes.

The ferry LeConte ties up at Auke Bay, Juneau’s ferry terminal. Photo courtesy Alaska Transportation Department.

“I have previously described the current, 350-foot Alaska Class Ferry as a stretch LeConte,” said marine highways chief Capt. Mike Neussl, addressing a recent phone meeting of the Southeast Conference’s Transportation Committee.

The LeConte, which serves northern Southeast, has a cafeteria and crew quarters, allowing for longer sailings. Neussl says the shuttle ships will have none of those amenities.

“The concept for the replacement Alaska Class shuttle ferry is more of a stretched or supersized Lituya,” Neussl says.

That ship, which links Ketchikan and Metlakatla, has an open car deck and a small passenger area. (See profiles of all state ferries.)

Neussl says details are far from being worked out. But having a partially uncovered car deck would save money.

The ferry Lituya serves Metlakatla and Ketchikan. Photo courtesy Alaska Marine Highway System.

Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford says the weather’s too rough for that.

“All of have been in Lynn Canal in times when we shouldn’t have been and/or wished we weren’t. And unless you can really show me that it’s safe, that’s kind of a ridiculous concept to be even looking at,” Sanford says.

Ferries now sail a single daily Juneau-Haines-Skagway round trip. The LeConte runs in the winter and the larger Malaspina in the summer. Earlier Alaska Class Ferry plans called for much of the same.

Neussl says more and smaller shuttles would allow for a flexible schedule.

“The goal will be with these two vessels, and potentially a follow-on third vessel, is to run them one of them Juneau to Haines and back every day,” he says. “Or perhaps with two crews, twice a day. And to have an additional one of these vessels run back and forth four times a day or so between Haines and Skagway.”

An eventual third shuttle, if built, would be home-ported in Skagway and sail to and from Juneau.

The change from one large ferry to several shuttles raised the ire   of many involved with the marine highway — but not everyone.

Juneau Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathie Roemmich serves on the Southeast Conference’s Transportation Committee as well as the governor’s ferry advisory panel.

“We originally asked that we could get two small vessels. And over the past five and a half years, this shuttle/dayboat has morphed into this big ship,” Roemmich says.

Several committee members asked about community input into the new design.

Roemmich says she wants a review, but not a full set of hearings.

“But if we go back to the beginning, we will never get anything built. Because that’s what happened last time. We went from a shuttle/dayboat and it got out of control. And now we’ve lost that,” she says.

Ferry chief Neussl didn’t yet know how public input will be taken. But he said residents already shared their ideas during the larger ship’s planning process.

That raised questions from Mike Korsmo of Skagway.

“So what I’m hearing is basically, this plan is somewhat solidified. You’re going to say you’re taking public input, but you’re going to go ahead with this plan regardless of communities, mayors and legislators that don’t like it,” Korsmo says.

Neussl says the state is open to differing views, but wouldn’t commit to using new ideas.

Governor Sean Parnell announced the new Alaska Class Ferry plan in early December, surprising some lawmakers, advisory board members and ferry staff.

Further discussion is expected before the House and Senate Transportation Committees, both chaired by Southeast legislators. It will also be on the agenda for the next Marine Transportation Advisory Board meeting.

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