Whittier ferry dock back in service after ramp repair


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The state ferries should be back on schedule in Prince William Sound for the first time this fall.

The Alaska Marine Highway System announced ferry service to Whittier was set to resume Nov. 21 in a press release. Service to the system’s closest terminal to Anchorage had been suspended since late August due to problems with the adjustable terminal dock ramp. The mechanical failure occurred during testing of the ramp after scheduled maintenance was done to rewire its electrical system.

Federal emergency funds covered the repair work that totaled just less than $1 million, according to AMHS General Manager Capt. John Falvey.

 “Whittier ferry service is an important transportation link for the communities of Prince William Sound. On behalf of the department I would like to thank the residents and small businesses affected by this disruption for their patience while we worked to restore service as quickly as possible,” Falvey said in a Nov. 18 statement.

The M/V Aurora was scheduled to sail a revised four-sailing week out of Whittier Nov. 21-29 and resume its regular six sailings per week winter schedule Dec. 1.

At the Nov. 13 state Marine Transportation Advisory Board, or MTAB, meeting in Anchorage, board representative for Prince William Sound and Cordova City Council member Tim Joyce said the Cordova School District was 400 percent over its travel budget for the school year. The district usually was forced to fly students and sports teams around Southcentral rather than using the ferry to Whittier to connect to the road system, he said.

Sailings between Valdez and Cordova continued while the Whittier terminal was down.

Falvey detailed the cause of the ramp failure at the MTAB meeting. The electrical contractor — hired on a low-bid contract because the work was done with federal appropriation funds — did not properly install “permissive” mechanisms meant to prevent mechanical damage in the system as part of the rewire work, he said. The vehicle ramp was tested while it was in the up position and rather than move down or stop it continued upwards, according to Falvey.

“When the motor keeps running and there’s nowhere else to go it just starts grinding things apart,” Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Deputy Commissioner Reuben Yost said at the meeting.

One of the two motors that power the ramp was hooked up backward, Falvey said.

The ramp lift system design by Pearlson Shiplift Corp. of Miami is used at approximately a third of the 35 AMHS terminals, Falvey said. When working properly, he added that the system’s maintenance manager can operate them remotely from his office in Ketchikan.

“This was a very, very unusual and unfortunate failure,” Falvey said. “The same repair was done successfully in Wrangell.”

When the issue was first discovered, Pearlson officials said they would not have parts available to fix the specialized ramp lift system until spring, he said. In the interim, smaller gears were installed to get the ramp working again. Falvey said the substituted parts are safe and will work fine, but slower.

A different electrical contractor was hired to make the repairs, Falvey noted.

He said the wiring that was replaced in the original fix was not replaced when the Pearlson system was installed in the early 2000s, calling that a “judgment call” by the engineers at the time.

After much discussion among AMHS officials, operating the Aurora at the cruise ship dock in Whittier was not determined to be a safe option, Falvey said. The larger M/V Tustumena docks at the cruise ship dock when it is used for the “legislative sailings” between Whittier and Juneau each winter and spring.

When Pearlson’s parts are available in spring they will be switched out — a process that should take no more than a couple days, Falvey said. AMHS also purchased spare parts to have on hand should a similar incident ever occur again, he said.

The troubles in Whittier continued a year of problems on federally funded maintenance projects for AMHS. The Tustumena was held out of service for nearly six months this year during the peak travel season after capital improvement repairs done to the 49-year-old ferry in Seward were deemed faulty. The Tustumena returned to service in Western Alaska in late October.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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