Alaska state ferry Columbia will stay tied up this winter after all

The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Columbia passes through Wrangell Narrows headed south from Petersburg in Southeast Alaska, June 15. 2012. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)
The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Columbia passes through Wrangell Narrows headed south from Petersburg in Southeast Alaska, June 15. 2012. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

One of Alaska’s main ferries won’t be running this winter after all. The Columbia was going to be used on the mainline route running through the inner channels of Southeast from Bellingham, Washington and Prince Rupert, B.C. up to Yakutat. But the State Department of Transportation has decided to keep the 418-foot ferry sidelined.

“Columbia has been out of service for a few years and we’ve got it just about ready to bring back into service, but we feel it would be a better backup ship than being the primary vessel out there at this time,” said DOT spokesman Sam Dapcevich.

The nearly 50-year old ferry has been tied up since 2019 to save money.

Now, the state plans to use the Kennicott and Matanuska throughout the winter and use the Columbia as a backup ship. The Kennicott will run through mid-January and the Matanuska from late January on. There will be a two-week gap of no service in between.

This also means the Kennicott won’t run cross-Gulf of Alaska service in the winter months, Dapcevich says, but it should return in May.

Some other changes to the winter ferry schedule include adjusting the Tustumena dates out of Kodiak, filling the two-month gap that was in the draft schedule. It now provides trips to Prince William Sound between Cordova and Valdez, which connects Cordova to the road system during the two-month stretch when the Aurora is in overhaul.

But Dapcevich says it’s not set in stone.

“Those trips are dependent on weather because the Tustumena will have to cross the Gulf of Alaska between Homer and Prince Williams Sound to make those trips,” he said.

The state also decided to go back to flat rates for now, after two years of dynamic pricing. Dapcevich says customers didn’t like the ferry prices changing. And dynamic pricing didn’t work well with short staffing, which is an international problem.

“Right now, with our crewing situation, we’re not always able to live up to our schedule,” Dapcevich said. “And when that happens we end up having to cancel people’s plans, potentially they have to make last minute changes. And because of dynamic pricing, they may end up paying more and we don’t feel that’s right.”

Dapcevich says there is a recruitment program in place that should be filling vacant positions soon.

Angela Denning, CoastAlaska

Angela Denning is CoastAlaska's regional news director, based in Petersburg. CoastAlaska is our partner in Southeast Alaska. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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