Marine highway supporters look for new ideas amid challenges

The M/V Tustumena is again on the disabled list for most of the season as the state nears drafting its replacement.

Earlier this month the Alaska Marine Highway System announced the “Rusty Tusty,” as the state ferry is affectionately known to many, would be out of service until at least Aug. 15 after inspectors uncovered more damage to steel in the Tustumena’s engine room.

The latest setback builds on the first delay of the 53-year-old ferry’s return-to-service date, which in early May was pushed back from May 27 to mid-July after the initial discovery of wasted steel in the ship’s engine room.

Workers at Vigor Industrial’s Ketchikan Shipyard went to work on the Tustumena March 13 for its annual overhaul. At that time, it was expected the vessel would be back in service May 27.

In 2013, unexpected repair work coupled with shipyard mistakes kept the Tustumena out of service for most of the year. It was then that state Department of Transportation officials began the process of drafting designs for the Tustumena’s replacement vessel. The Tustumena was dry docked at a shipyard in Seward at that time.

The challenge the state ferry system has faced regarding the vessel is that at 296 feet it is significantly smaller than the other mainliner ferries the state operates but for several reasons, including the fact that it is the only ferry with a vehicle elevator to match the fixed docks in many of the communities the vessel serves, there aren’t other options.

As a result, the relatively small, aging Tustumena has long been tasked with running the rough and tumble route between Homer, Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians, much of which is exposed to the vast Gulf of Alaska.

The dock situation along the Tustumena’s route means it is more feasible to replace the Tustumena with a new vehicle elevator-equipped ferry than it is to replace all of the fixed docks with floating infrastructure, according to AMHS leaders.

Previously when the Tustumena was laid up the M/V Kennicott would stand in and pick up at least some of the slack in accessible communities, as happened in 2013. This year, however, multiple years of budget cuts to the AMHS have eliminated that option.

“We don’t have the funding to absorb those changes,” AMHS spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said.

That means the normal 10 ferry runs through Southwest Alaska will be cut to three this year, according to AMHS — unless the Tusty is delayed yet again — with the first starting Aug. 22.

Bailey added that overall ferry service has been cut 20 percent from its peak several years ago as the solely state funded AMHS budget has shrunk.

She also noted that private shippers have tried to stand in for the Tustumena. Seattle-based Coastal Transportation, which operates solely between Washington and Southwest Alaska, is hauling cargo and vehicles on a space-available basis for displaced freight at AMHS rates and Samson Tug and Barge and Grant Aviation have assisted as well, Bailey said.

On June 13 the AMHS announced the M/V Columbia, which runs between Southeast and Bellingham, Wash., will be at Vigor’s shipyard in Portland longer than expected for propeller repairs.

The Columbia is now expected to be back in service July 26.

It struck an unknown object last September and immediately went in for repairs.

However, parts of the newly installed propeller system failed during sea trials and the problem is now being diagnosed, according to the ferry system.

The M/V Malaspina is filling in for the Columbia, but because it is a smaller vessel, some vessel cabins and vehicle space reserved for the larger Columbia will be unavailable.

The $244 million for the Tustumena replacement vessel is in the state capital budget that is tied up in the Legislature’s ongoing debate over what the State of Alaska’s long-term fiscal plan should be.

The state’s cost to replace the Tustumena is $22 million, with the feds picking up the remaining $222 million tab.

Because the Alaska Marine Highway System is classified as a traditional highway by the federal government, new state ferries can be built with primarily federal money by employing the 90-10 federal-state funding split that funds most highway projects across the country.

However, using federal funds also means the new vessel likely won’t be built in Alaska, as any shipyard nationwide will have the ability to bid on the project.

The two smaller Alaska-class “day boat” ferries currently under construction at the Ketchikan Shipyard were paid for completely with state funds, allowing state officials to make sure the state money was spent in Alaska.

The Alaska-class ferries, the Tazlina and the Hubbard, are scheduled to be finished in October 2018.

Bailey said the 330-foot, unnamed Tustumena replacement could be done about five years after it is funded, putting the earliest likely completion date sometime in 2023.

Ferry officials have also been unsuccessful in trying to sell the one of the system’s original vessels, the 54-year-old M/V Taku. Sealed bid auctions this year with minimum bids starting at $1.5 million and then $700,000 did not attract any buyers.

In 2003, the State of Alaska resorted to eBay to sell the E.L. Bartlett for $389,500, which was the last time an Alaska state ferry was sold.

AMHS reform

The State of Alaska and the Southeast Conference are also asking for input from AMHS stakeholders on how to best shape the long-term future of the ferries.

Last year Gov. Bill Walker signed an agreement with the Southeast Conference to collectively examine reforming the Alaska Marine Highway System into a more efficient and financially stable operation.

The Southeast Conference is Southeast Alaska’s nonprofit regional development organization.

Currently run as a division of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, the AMHS is funded through annual legislative appropriations. This regularly makes it subject to political funding battles between legislators from smaller coastal communities and those from the rest of Alaska who are highly critical of the AMHS because it is not self-sustaining financially.

Phase One of the reform study, finished in December, examined the organizational structure of other ferry operations and recommended the AMHS be morphed into a public corporation to, as much as possible, eliminate politics from leadership and decision-making.

The study also concluded the ferry system should have a dedicated funding stream to help stabilize service levels. That in turn would allow ferry schedules to be set further in advance than the several months ahead of schedule they are set now. More reliable scheduling would likely increase ridership, according to the study, particularly from tourists who often book trips a year or more in advance.

Phase Two is examining a 25-year operating plant that includes looking at funding options, possible partnerships with the private sector and a fleet renewal plan in more detail and should be done late this fall.

Updated: 
06/15/2017 - 2:11pm

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