State fast-tracks construction for new Tustumena ferry

AMHS Ferry Tustumena in Homer
The Tustumena docked in Homer in 2009. (Creative Commons photo by Isaac Wedin)

The state’s plan to build a new ferry for Southwest Alaska has been fast-tracked.

Originally, construction was scheduled to start in 2019, but now contractors could begin building the new ship as early as next year.

Communications Officer Jeremy Woodrow says the Alaska Department of Transportation wants to replace the Tustumena ferry as soon as possible.

“It’s more than 50 years old, it runs in one of the more harsh climates in the world, and it’s shown its age more than other vessels in the fleet that are around similar age,” said Woodrow.

The Tustumena was built in 1964 as one of the original four ships in the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet, and it has one of the longest routes of any state ferry. It travels from Homer to Kodiak to Unalaska, stopping at 13 ports along the way.

While the original vessel is still safe to operate, Woodrow said it’s become very expensive and time-intensive to maintain. In 2013, the DOT actually stopped all ferry service to the Southwest, so shipyard workers could repair the Tustumena’s corroded steel.

That’s why state officials have sped up the timeline to replace the vessel.

Woodrow said the DOT is waiting for the next legislative session to get funding approval from lawmakers. Building the new ferry will cost around $240 million, but the state only has cover 10 percent, thanks to federal funding.

Meanwhile, the final designs are complete. The new Tustumena will look similar to the original ship, but it’ll be 50 feet longer to carry more passengers and more cars.

“It’s also going to have better sea handling,” said Woodrow. “The Tustumena is known to have quite a roll to it, but the new vessel is going to be better designed to handle rougher seas.”

In the meantime, Woodrow said the current ferry has operated well this summer despite its age.

“The original Tusty is going about business as usual,” he said. “A lot of the users who use the Tustumena frequently do love this ferry, and I know some people will be sad to see it go.”

The next legislative session is set for January, and the DOT will open bids for the construction project in the next year.

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