Update (Friday, 1:37 p.m.) — Henry Leasia, KHNS-Haines
On Thursday, the Alaska Marine Highway System removed most of its previously scheduled sailings to and from the Upper Lynn Canal until spring.
According to a press release from the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, starting Oct. 31, there will be one ferry a week to Haines and Skagway. There will be no AMHS service to Angoon, Tenakee Springs, Pelican and Gustavus. Hoonah will receive service twice per month. (Read more.)
Another Alaska ferry could be dropped from the winter schedule, leaving Southeast communities scrambling for alternatives.
“The MV LeConte is in need of more repairs than originally budgeted for,” wrote Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesperson Meadow Bailey in an email answering questions over the fate of the decades-old ferry that serves small communities like Tenakee Springs.
At the moment, state officials have delayed work on the LeConte until further notice.
There’s no regular barge service or a land airport to the Chichagof Island community, meaning the ferry is the primary way in and out. The community has a winter population of about 60 people.
“We have the ferry, and then we have seaplane service,” said Tenakee Springs Mayor Dan Kennedy.
“I’ve been here 30 years. I’ve seen some winters where we didn’t get a plane for almost three weeks,” he said.
The Department of Transportation budgeted $1.2 million for the LeConte’s overhaul, but when it got to the shipyard this month, the ferry needed additional work costing around $4 million more.
Critics said the state should’ve planned ahead and applied for more federal funds for these overhauls.
“Nobody should be surprised that 46-year-old boats (that) spend their whole lives in saltwater need a lot of steel replaced,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau.
He said poor planning by successive administrations has gotten the Alaska Marine Highway System into this. But politics aside, he said people in his district depend on the ferry.
“We recently heard Alaskans in the Railbelt really upset that middle-of-the-night plowing might be delayed for daylight hours, because it reduces their access and their safety,” Kiehl said. “We have a ferry schedule that radically reduces our safe access from one community to another. … We can’t keep going like this. It’s going to hurt the economy and hurt our families and schools. It’s not OK.”
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. But while repair work on the LeConte is delayed, the Aurora is also being overhauled this winter.
State officials haven’t said what service would look like in Southeast with both ships offline. Transportation officials said the plan is to bring both into dry dock for a side-by-side comparison next week to see which needs less work.
But both of those ships usually service the smaller communities in Southeast Alaska. In Tenakee Springs, Kennedy said the larger ferries can’t maneuver into his town’s dock.
“Our ferry dock is in in horrible shape. It’s supposed to be going out to bid to be replaced next summer. So I doubt whether they’d want to, you know, bring in a bigger ship to keep us going if the little ones were both down,” Kennedy said.
And it’s not just the smaller ships having issues. Earlier this month DOT announced the Malaspina would be in layup indefinitely starting in December.
State officials cited the $16 million cost of steel work as its reasoning for taking that ship out of service. Though, again, it was unclear how much of this could be covered with federal transportation dollars.
In Hoonah, a city of fewer than 800 people, Mayor Gerald Byers said local stores are already stockpiling dry goods as ferry service gets less frequent.
But for fresh produce and perishables, “it’s already expensive enough. If they have to fly that stuff over at 50 cents a pound, that’s eight pounds per gallon milk. So you’re going to have to add that $4 on the cost they’re already paying.”
The state does have two brand-new ferries: the Tazlina and the Hubbard. But neither are on the winter schedule. That’s because the state is adding side doors to allow them to load and unload more efficiently.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that DOT had estimated a total repair cost of $4 million for the LeConte. In fact, LeConte’s repairs will cost an additional $4 million on top of the $1.2 million already budgeted.