The town of Tenakee Springs saw its first ferry in more than five months Wednesday evening after the completion of a new city dock. Floatplanes and private vessels provided the only transportation while the state contractor Western Marine Construction constructed the eleven million dollar project. But some Tenakee residents worry that the new facility won’t get the use it was intended for.
The ferry is a lifeline for the 100-person town of Tenakee Springs. It’s a cheaper and more reliable way to get groceries, access health care and bring in tourism. But without a functional dock, the boats can’t come. Getting a new one after more than 40 years is a big deal for the community.
“It pretty much means the world to us because the other dock was well beyond its service life. It was falling apart,” said Tenakee harbormaster Dan Martin. “And it was getting to a point where probably the barge services weren’t going to come in here anymore.”
The new dock will improve pedestrian access and vehicular access for the baggage cart truck. It will also allow two new ferries to visit the community — the Hubbard and the Tazlina.
“That thing is pretty skookum, I think you could tie the Queen Mary up to it,” Martin said.
But Tenakee Mayor Dan Kennedy hopes they actually get regular ferry service to put it to use. Tenakee used to receive two ferries a week on average. Then, last winter the town went nearly nine months without one, after Gov. Dunleavy’s administration slashed the Marine Highway System budget and drastically reduced sailings around Alaska.
This winter’s schedule is better than last year’s, but not good enough, Kennedy said, especially in the winter months when the weather makes floatplane service unreliable.
“People need medications, get into the doctor and things like that, and without the ferry in the winter, you just can’t really count on anything.”
Alaska Marine Highway System spokesperson Sam Dapcevich said the lighter winter ferry schedule is due to decreased demand and revenue brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But what future ferry service to Tenakee and other Southeast Alaska communities will look like once the pandemic is over is still up in the air. Before the pandemic began, coastal communities around the state were advocating fiercely for a return to full service.
A recent report from a group tasked with reshaping the future of the ferry system recommended the state construct a road from Tenakee to Hoonah, so residents could use their ferry terminal. But Kennedy said he doesn’t see that as a viable option.
“I mean I think this whole Hoonah Road idea is definitely years out,” Kennedy said. “The other thing is nobody here has a car. We’re set up on a trail, there’s no room for a car. Yeah, it’s just absurd to think that we could drive to get on a ferry in Hoonah.”
So, why invest millions of dollars in new construction for a dock that could see very little use? Spokesperson Dapcevich said the state prioritized the project because the dock had reached the end of its useful life, and the funding was set in motion long before the contract was awarded in December.
“At the time when the decision was made to do it, that project was considered a priority and so it was moved forward,” he said.
The ferry LeConte is scheduled to visit Tenakee around three times a month until mid-February. Then, several communities around Southeast will experience a nearly two-month gap in service while the ferry is being overhauled.