Tustumena replacement accelerated to FY2017 funding
It’s looking like the M/V Tustumena could be headed for an earlier-than-expected retirement.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has moved up its federal funding request to pay for the 52-year-old Tustumena’s $237 million replacement from “after fiscal year 2019” to federal fiscal year 2017, which begins Oct. 1.
The Seattle-based marine engineering firm Glosten finished designing the new 330-foot vessel in January.
“It’s just a matter of awarding (the construction) contract and before we can do that we have to have funding for it,” Deputy DOT Commissioner Mike Neussl said.
DOT made the change in the first amendment to its 2016-2019 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program document, which essentially prioritizes all of the department’s prospective construction projects and the plans to fund them.
About $216 million of the $237 million for the new ferry will be federal money, with the remaining $21 million paid for with requisite state matching funds.
The Alaska Marine Highway is part of the national highway system and therefore qualifies for Federal Highway Administration funds for road construction projects. Those federal dollars typically require a minimum state match of approximately 10 percent.
The public comment period for the STIP amendment document ended Aug. 19, and barring changes will soon be incorporated into the overall construction plan, which was finalized last November.
In the case of the Tustumena replacement, the funding request was advanced via a mechanism that allows the state to fund the project up front and be paid back over subsequent years if the project is approved by the FHWA.
The STIP amendment calls for the state to fund the several-year project up front with $54 million in paybacks in federal year 2019 and another $108 million from the feds after 2019.
Replacing the 296-foot Tustumena, which serves Homer, Kodiak Island and ports on the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians has become increasingly pressing as the aging ferry has shown more and more wear from years on the system’s most taxing route.
Cracks near the bow in the structure of the vessel have forced the U.S. Coast Guard to put travel restrictions on the Tustumena, Neussl said. That means it won’t be hauling legislators and their wares from Whittier to Juneau this January.
“The legislative cross-gulf run is not on the winter schedule, which was just released,” Neussl said. “We have an alternative plan to truck those vehicles to Haines and haul them from Haines to Juneau on the regular Lynn Canal ferries.”
Replacing the Tustumena is all-but mandatory, despite the state’s $3 billion budget deficit, because it is the only vessel in the 11-ferry fleet with a vehicle elevator to match the docks on its route.
“Nearly every port from Homer out to Unalaska-Dutch Harbor is a (privately owned) fixed-height dock,” AMHS General Manager John Falvey said. “There are no floating docks out there. That would be a massive infrastructure change to keep all those communities in service with a new floating drive-on drive-off dock.”
Additionally, the new vessel will carry 53 vehicles to the Tusty’s 34, which will add needed car deck space between Homer and Kodiak, Neussl noted.
According to Glosten, the latest ferry design should reduce drag on the vessel’s hull by 20 percent and lead to notable fuel savings as well.
Doug Ward of Vigor Alaska said during the MTAB meeting that the state’s twin 280-foot “Alaska class” day ferries being built at Vigor’s Ketchikan shipyard are about three to four months behind schedule for both to be done by October 2018.
He attributed the setback in the nearly four-year build schedule to the contract employees the company hired not taking a liking to the Southeast Alaska community.
“We had a lot of turnover in 2015,” Ward said.
Vigor hired journeymen level shipbuilders from the Gulf Coast to teach generally younger, unskilled resident workers in the trade. However, the fair weather workers “don’t last very long in Ketchikan,” Ward commented.
“We are a little bit behind schedule and I’m feeling pretty good that we’re going to be able to catch up and hopefully turn a profit,” he said.
In May, Gov. Bill Walker’s office announced Port Alsworth 7th grader Malea Voran and Eagle River sophomore Taylor Thompson had won a statewide essay contest for Alaska students to name the Alaska class ferries, which will be the M/V Tazlina and the M/V Hubbard.
State law requires AMHS ferries be named after Alaska glaciers.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].