Alaska Marine Highway proposes lean summer schedule; new ferries to stay tied to the dock

The 280-foot Hubbard is an Alaska Class Ferry tied up in Ketchikan on January 29, 2021. It was built for $60 million by Vigor Alaska and completed last year. It and its sister ship recently received new side doors at a cost of about $4.4 million. It has not been put into service. (Photo by Eric Stone/KRBD)

Summer is peak time for the Alaska Marine Highway System, and the proposed five-month summer schedule just came out. Many communities will get only limited service and coastal lawmakers aren’t happy.

“We need to get more ships in the water,” said Sen. Bert Stedman (R-Sitka). He’s concerned about long gaps despite lawmakers’ efforts to fully fund the marine highway system.

Stedman co-chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Last year he worked with coastal allies in the state House of Representative to funnel more money into the ferries. But much of the extra funding was vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

The schedule also leaves no slack in the system if and when one of the aging ferries breaks down.

“With all the deferred maintenance that has been going on over the years, it would be good to have a vessel on just for backup,” said Earling Walli, a former ferry boatswain and now regional head of the Inlandboatmen’s Union, the largest of the three ferry unions.

Veteran ferry crew members have made similar warnings in years past. When the Matanuska ferry broke down a year ago, there was no immediate replacement. That effectively shut down the marine highway’s regional service for more than two months.

That’s not to say the state isn’t spending money on upgrading its ships.

The Department of Transportation confirmed to CoastAlaska that it recently spent about $4.4 million to have side doors installed on the two Alaska Class Ferries.

“The total cost for both vessels’ doors, including installation, is $4,440,906,” the state agency wrote in a statement in response to CoastAlaska’s questions. “The doors and the installation contract are funded entirely by state dollars.”

The work was done at the Vigor Alaska shipyard in Ketchikan. That’s the same facility that built the two ships for $120 million in a sole-source contract using state money.

The Tazlina entered service in 2019 and did a few runs last year. But since then, it has been almost completely idle. And its sister ship Hubbard hasn’t spent a day in service. Both are slated to remain tied up in Ketchikan despite the recent upgrades.

So why are the two newest boats in the fleet staying tied up while the ferry puts out fewer and fewer sailings on its older vessels?

For one, DOT says the Alaska Class Ferries aren’t suitable to the fleet’s immediate needs. They were built as day boats, so they don’t have crew quarters, and that means they can’t run for more than 12 hours at a time.

They were designed to complement the Juneau Access Project, which would’ve extended the capital city’s road system nearly 50 miles north and shorten the ferry ride to Haines and Skagway.

“And of course, that road and that construction never happened and so therefore, those vessels are pretty much non-usable,” Rep. Dan Ortiz (I-Ketchikan) said in an interview.

And those new side doors? Well, that would allow them to tie up in communities with smaller docks, if they had the range to get there.

The legislature added funding for crew quarters, but that was part of the ferry package that was mostly erased by Dunleavy’s vetoes.

And there are two other modern ferries that have been tied up — a pair of catamarans, Fairweather and Chenega, that the state is trying to sell.

But at a recent auction they received one low-ball bid that was less than half the minimum price.

Meanwhile, Stedman says the state is paying a lot of money to moor mothballed ships.

“We need to cut some of our losses,” he said. “If we’re not going to sail those ships ever again, we need to get rid of them.”

In the meantime, Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound communities will be mostly served by ships built in the 1970s. And the monthly Aleutian run will be done by the Tustumena, which entered service five years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

“We need to get a replacement plan for these ships,” Stedman said. “And we need to get them funded.”

There’s no long range plan or state savings to replace the aging fleet.

“There’s nothing and that is alarming,” Stedman added.

A lot of these issues were addressed in last year’s marine highway report that was commissioned by the governor.

Stedman served on that working group and says its recommendations will be presented in detail to the legislature.

“I think this winter is going to be very telling if we can make some forward progress and trying to stabilize the marine highway,” he said. “In my opinion, right now, it’s still going backwards a little bit. I am concerned about the schedule that’s been presented for consideration by the public I hope the public encouraging the call in.”

He’s referring to an upcoming February 8 public hearing.

Already some communities have concerns. Kake, a village on Kupreanof Island, recently learned that it isn’t on the skeletal summer schedule at all.

“For some reason, we’re the black sheep of Southeast, I guess,” said Joel Jackson, president of Kake’s tribal government.

He says the village of 500 people was off the schedule last summer too. “We don’t very much appreciate it,” he added.

In a follow up email, a state transportation spokesman says Kake’s lack of ferry service was an oversight. It would be getting two ferries a month after all.

Proposed Vessel Deployment (May 1-September 30):

  • Kennicott to operate Bellingham/Juneau cross the Gulf to Southwest, twice per month.
  • Matanuska to operate on the Wednesday Bellingham Route.
  • LeConte to sail Northern Panhandle.
  • Lituya to sail 5 days per week between Annette Bay and Ketchikan
  • Tustumena to sail the Southwest Route with one Aleutian chain trip per month.
  • Aurora to sail Prince William Sound.

The state Department of Transportation is hearing public testimony on the draft summer schedule on Monday, February 8. Southeast communities will be heard from 10 a.m. And Southwest communities — including Kodiak Island and the Aleutians — will be heard at 1:30 p.m. Written comments can be emailed to dot.amhs.comments@alaska.gov through February 7.

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