Budget cuts sideline three of Alaska’s 11 ferries

A Petersburg fishing boat passes the ferry Taku near the entrance of Wrangell Narrows in August, 2013. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
A Petersburg fishing boat passes the ferry Taku near the entrance of Wrangell Narrows in August, 2013. The 370-passenger ship is scheduled to be tied up starting in July. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The Alaska Marine Highway System plans to lay up three of its 11 ferries for most of the next budget year.

A draft schedule released Friday shows the Taku out for all of fiscal year 2016, which begins in July. The fast ferries Chenega and Fairweather will be tied up starting in the early fall.

Marine Highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow says the schedule reflects state budget cuts, as well as vessel repairs.

“The main goal is not to cut off any single port from ferry service. So no port will lose ferry service during the winter season. Just some will see less frequency,” he says.

But several Southeast communities will go without ferries for about a month.

Crew check the Fairweather while docking in Petersburg in 2014. It and the Chenega could be tied up for most of the fall, winter and spring.(Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
Crew check the Fairweather while docking in Petersburg in 2014. It and the Chenega could be tied up for most of the fall, winter and spring. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Angoon, Tenakee, Gustavus, Metlakatla and Pelican will have no port calls from mid-January to mid-February. Sitka, Hoonah and Skagway will have only two weekly sailings during that time. Only the ferries Malaspina and Matanuska will sail Southeast then.

The Taku is more than 50 years old and has been considered for retirement. Woodrow says it’s one of three ferries from the same era.

“We’ve put more work into the Malaspina and the Matanuska. Those three are considered sister ships. So the Taku would be the first to go, and if we were going to lay up a ship, it would be the Taku first,” he says.

The fast ferry Chenega will be tied up for work in mid-September. Its sister ship, the Fairweather, will do the same in October.

Both with be docked through the end of April. The draft schedule shows them remaining out of service through the end of June.

Woodrow says that’s because they’re expensive to operate.

“Once they exit their capital improvement projects, whether they go into service past June 30th for next summer season is to be determined based on what the proposed budget for the marine highway will be for fiscal year 2017,” he says.

The Legislature could make deeper cuts to the ferry system next year.

Marine highway officials are taking comments on the winter’s draft schedule. Teleconferences are planned for Wednesday, July 22.

The spring schedule will be addressed later.

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