Listen: How a missed opportunity and unforeseen costs became part of the Alaska Class Ferry story

For many communities in Alaska, the marine highway system is a vital part of transportation. More than a decade ago, the state decided to add two new boats to the fleet. The Alaska Class Ferries were envisioned when plans for the Juneau Access Project were being finalized. They would service Upper Lynn Canal as shuttle ferries.

But through several administrations, those plans have changed a lot. Now, the Anchorage Daily News reports, an additional $30 million is needed before the Hubbard and Tazlina ferries can start sailing. Alaska Public Media’s Abbey Collins spoke with the ADN’s James Brooks about the situation the state is in, and what could have happened if different decisions were made early on.

Interview highlights: 

Unforeseen costs: “The key thing folks need to know is that the state spent $120 million on these two new ships. They’re brand new. They’re ready to enter state service, just about. But the state can’t operate them as designed. And now… the marine highway system is planning to spend millions of dollars more in order to get them to serve. And then there will be even more money needed ashore to build the port facilities to support these.”

A project spanning several state administrations: “The key issue seems to be that it takes longer to build a ferry than a single governor’s term… every new governor comes in and has a different idea for this ferry program. That seems to have been the key issue here. They were designed for one thing. Then the design changes. And then it changes back, and there’s modifications. The mission changes, oil prices change. All these changes happened while this ferry idea was moving forward.”

Who’s to blame?: “There’s no villain in this story. The ironic thing is that these two ferries are in the position they’re in, because people wanted to cut costs. We’re going to end up spending more money on these ferries because the decisions that were made along the lines were people with good intentions, who wanted to cut costs. And now, it’s backfired.”

A missed opportunity: “The decision was made to build them entirely with state money. Had the state chosen to do a federal match, it would have had to pay 10 percent. Instead of 100 percent. So the state could have had these ferries for say, $12 million. Instead of $120 million. And if the rest of that $120 million had stayed with the ferry system, they would have been able to replace five mainline ferries for the cost of that.”

James Brooks is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s based in Juneau. 

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