With M/V Matanuska sidelined, air travel is the only option for the Upper Lynn Canal

An Alaska Seaplanes aircraft makes its way to Juneau in June 2017.
An Alaska Seaplanes aircraft makes its way to Juneau in June 2017. (Photo by Abbey Collins/KHNS)

The good news for Andy and Juliene Miles is, they just had a beautiful baby. The bad news is, they’re stuck in Juneau.

With a break in the weather on Tuesday, Alaska Seaplanes did its best to fill the void left by the M/V Matanuska’s breakdown. They flew three flights to Skagway and eight flights to Haines.

But you can’t put a car on a plane, which means some travelers, like the Miles family, will simply have to wait for the Matanuska’s return.

We were planning on finally heading home to get settled in here this week, but now we get to stay an extra week,” Juliene said. “We could fly, but with having a baby and our car down here and all of the things that go along with a baby, it’s kind of hard to just hop on a plane.”

Flights were grounded on Monday due to weather, and the Municipality of Skagway considered hiring a private charter boat to fill the transportation void — as they did two weeks ago. But flights resumed on Tuesday, and with waning public interest and no firm commitment from the state to cover costs, Skagway elected to not book the private vessel.

State Senator Jesse Kiehl says Southeast is unique in its transportation struggles.

The state simply doesn’t have these kinds of ‘Single point of failure’ systems, unreliable transportation systems, elsewhere. Then ask communities to come in when something bad happens,” Kiehl said.

According to Kiehl, the current problems with the Matanuska involve the recently rebuilt propulsion system.

“She’s got bad engine parts over on the port side, and AMHS has shipped these giant power pack units out of Louisiana for this ship which was just repowered, engines to propellers, a couple of years back, and it’s been breakdown after breakdown [since],” he said.

State Representative Sara Hannan says the issues with the Alaska Marine Highway System are not temporary. She has been working closely on House Bill 63 which would restructure oversight of the beleaguered ferry system. And while the bill seems to have support, any changes will be slow-moving.

“Even in a positive scenario, it’s still likely to take two years,” said Hannan.

Two Alaska Class ferries, the Tazlina and Hubbard, were christened within the last three years. Neither is on the Alaska Marine Highway schedule this year.

The Hubbard still lacks a Coast Guard certification, which comes with a $1 million price tag the state is reluctant to pursue. That leaves the Tazlina, which is moored and not in service.

“The Tazlina which has a certificate of inspection and ran last summer,” Hannan said. “AMHS is holding firm that they’re not going to run it this summer because it can’t run the route because we don’t have crew quarters.”

Representative Hannan said that due to Coast Guard restrictions, the crew can only be out to sea for up to 12 hours at a time without sleeping quarters. Round trips from Juneau that include stops in Skagway and Haines take too long. So the vessels would need to be fitted with crew quarters that would cost roughly $15 million per vessel and take at least two years to complete.

A proposal to build a ferry terminal north of Juneau is unlikely to gain traction in the short term as well.

The Municipality of Skagway has formed an ad-hoc committee to generate creative ferry solutions for the Upper Lynn Canal. In the meantime, a single mainliner is what the Alaska Marine Highway is willing to offer this time of year. The LeConte is projected to be back online in mid-April, allowing for multiple runs per week.

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