New state ferries may face delays entering service

  • The M/V Tazlina is seen at the Vigor Industrial Shipyard in Ketchikan. The first of two "Alaska class" ferries, the largest ever built in the state, was christened on Aug. 11 and was scheduled to enter service next May, but complications with the dock in Haines could cause delays for it and its sister ship the Hubbard. (Photo/Courtesy/Vigor Industrial)

Whether Alaska’s two newest ferries will be put to work next summer remains unknown despite the fact that they both should be ready to go.

There are several reasons for the likely delay, but Alaska Marine Highway Executive Director Shirley Marquardt said a primary one is that modifications have not yet been made to the Haines ferry dock that would allow the ferries to be used efficiently.

The twin, 280-foot M/V Tazlina and Hubbard “day boats” were built for shuttle service in Lynn Canal and have stern and bow doors to allow for the quickest possible loading and unloading of vehicles and other freight. The original plan was for the two ferries “to feed each other, coming nose-to-nose into the dock at Haines and you basically drive off one and drive on the other and it would go back to Skagway,” Marquardt explained during a joint Dec. 18 meeting of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board and the AMHS Reform Steering Committee.

However, challenges accounting for the bulbous bows on the new ferries in the dock design have delayed the project that is being done by another division in the Department of Transportation, she said.

A DOT spokesperson did not respons to questions about the Haines dock in time for this story.

The $25 million Haines ferry dock would be built mostly with Federal Highway Administration grants and is scheduled for funding in the current and future fiscal years in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.

The dock won’t be finished until late next year or early 2020, according to Marquardt.

The Tazlina and Hubbard are scheduled to be ready for service when the busy summer AMHS schedule starts May 1, according to DOT. Then-First Lady Donna Walker christened the Tazlina Aug. 11 at Vigor Industrial’s Ketchikan shipyard and work on the Hubbard has followed close behind.

Without the modified dock, the day boats, which do not have crew quarters, will struggle to make the round trip from Juneau to Haines-Skagway and back within the U.S. Coast Guard’s 12-hour crew work limit, Marquardt said.

Housing the 24-person crews in Haines and Skagway during the peak of the summer season is not seen as a viable option around the daily work limit and it also could complicate scheduling and limit service.

AMHS General Manager John Falvey said he has a verbal commitment to a waiver from Coast Guard officials that would allow the day boats to operate 14 hours per day, but that could butt against crew labor agreements.

Marquardt added that cuts to the AMHS budget and fleet — notably taking the ferries Chenega and Taku out of service — and changes to its expected route structure over the past 10 years mean the Tazlina and Hubbard generally don’t meet what the system needs in new vessels either.

The AMHS operating budget has been cut by about 30 percent over the past five years, adding another layer of challenges to running the already complex system.

Without side doors common on other state ferries or crew quarters for extended voyages they are functionally limited to working out of Juneau in northern Lynn Canal. Meanwhile, AMHS is facing a 10-month service gap in Prince William Sound when the M/V Aurora eventually goes to a dry dock for new engines, work Marquardt said has been pushed back a year to 2020 in hopes of finding a solution.

She also questioned whether the day boats would be able to go to-and-from Juneau in 12 hours during tough, slower winter conditions even with the proper shore side facilities.

“We believe that the optics of tying two new vessels up until they can fulfill their required service needs are far more justifiable than placing two ill-equipped vessels into service,” Marquardt read from a letter to former Gov. Bill Walker about the situation. She is sending the same letter to Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s administration as well.

The operational challenges were discovered after Marquardt and other AMHS leaders began assessing from numerous angles what it would take to fold the new ferries into the 10-vessel fleet shortly after she joined the system June 1, she said.

Marquardt noted that the day boats were conceptualized at a time when the Juneau Access project to extend the Glacier Highway nearly 50 miles further north of the capital city, which would have shortened the shuttle runs the ferries would make in Lynn Canal.

Former Gov. Bill Walker officially decided against the long-debated road extension project estimated at $680 million in July. While the project would increase vehicle capacity in and out of Juneau, its economic viability is an open question among other issues.

Dunleavy has supported the Juneau Access project in the past and was critical of Walker’s decision.

These types of issues are among those that many AMHS leaders and stakeholders believe can be better addressed if the system is turned into a public corporation, similar to the Alaska Railroad Corp.

The general belief is that a state ferry corporation led by a board of apolitical subject matter experts would be better equipped to draft and execute long-term plans to make the system more efficient and hopefully take it out of the Legislature’s annual budget battles.

Currently, the AMHS is ostensibly a division of the Department of Transportation immediately overseen by a DOT deputy commissioner, a politically appointed position with high turnover.

The structure largely leaves system managers to worry about day-to-day operations while long-term goals shift around them.

MTAB chair Robert Venables noted that Dunleavy is the fifth Alaska governor to have a hand in crafting the Tazlina and Hubbard before they have even entered service.

Last April the House Transportation Committee introduced a 53-page bill to overhaul the AMHS to the public corporation model. It is expected the legislation will be amended and reintroduced early in 2019 after being reviewed by stakeholders, but who will sponsor it is unclear at this point.

In regards to the Tazlina and Hubbard, the consensus solution from AMHS officials is to add side doors and 24 crew berths to the new ferries — stripping them of the “day boat” title but making them immensely more valuable to system operations, Marquardt contends.

The upgrades are expected to cost roughly $15 million per vessel, which the system has in its replacement and operating funds, but legislative approval is need to access the money.

Because the nearly $60 million has not yet been spent on the docks, the state can instead get much more use out of putting $30 million into the ferries, she insisted.

Marquardt inquired about getting approval through the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee while the Hubbard was much earlier in the construction process but was told such a large request should go through the full Legislature, she said, which is what she insisted she wants to do.

She expects to talk to administration officials about the situation very soon Marquardt said, noting Walker put the funding authorization requests in his budget that was taken by Dunleavy’s team.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

12/27/2018 - 9:39am