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My Turn: Cost limits on ferries, but not 'the road'

Posted: January 31, 2013 - 12:08am

Gov. Sean Parnell’s decision to cancel the Alaska Class ferry, after years of planning and public input, came as a shock to many people. The reason, he said, was because the construction estimate had gone over budget. If plans for the East Lynn Canal road had to meet this standard, they would have been scrapped long ago. In 2006, construction of the road was estimated to be about $260 million. The most recent estimate is $520 million.

DOT Commissioner Pat Kemp has stated that two smaller “shuttle ferries” can be built for the $120 million allotted to the Alaska Class ferry project. These ships would be part of the East Lynn Canal road plan, shuttling vehicles from a new terminal at the Katzehin River to Haines and Skagway.

At first I was disappointed by this sudden change from one Taku-sized ship to two smaller ones, but now I have embraced the idea. Two new ships can greatly improve access to Juneau, but they have to be the right ships, and they have to be scheduled in the right way.

At the Jan. 17 meeting of the House and Senate Transportation Committees and DOT officials, Captain John Falvey, general manager of the Marine Highway, made some encouraging statements. He said that DOT is not considering open-decked ferries for the Lynn Canal. This is good, because they absolutely won’t work here. Picture a parking lot full of cars, all frozen together into an immovable mass under several inches of salty ice. Salt spray also quickly corrodes metal and electronics.

The ships Capt. Falvey described would be 280 feet long, quite a bit larger than the LeConte, with ocean-type hulls and enough power to handle winter conditions in Lynn Canal. They would load from both ends and operate as day-boats. Staterooms, crew quarters and a full galley would be eliminated to save money.

I think this two day-boat concept can work, but only if the ships are seaworthy. Whether they sail from Auke Bay or from the Katzehin, these new ships must be designed for the extreme conditions that occur here regularly. An East Lynn Canal road would be closed by avalanches much of the winter, so the ships must be capable of going the entire distance.

Efficient scheduling will also be critical. A plan was put forward by DOT at the meeting to have one ship sail between Juneau and Haines, and the other sail between Haines and Skagway. This would be inefficient. The Juneau-Haines connection carries about three-fourths of the traffic. It doesn’t make sense to devote 50 percent of the ships to 25 percent of the traffic.

DOT wants to limit each ferry’s run to 12 hours a day. Under their plan, this would mean only one Juneau-Haines round trip a day. If the new ships can perform as advertised, I think two loops a day between Juneau, Haines and Skagway are possible. Currently, the day-boat loop takes 14 hours. The proposed roll-on, roll-off design can save time in two ways. There is less time in port, probably half an hour instead of an hour, and less time spent maneuvering the ship to the dock. I think enough time could be saved to do the loop in 12 hours.

On summer mornings, one ship could leave Juneau, northbound, and the other leave Skagway, southbound. Both would complete the loop between the three communities. This would not only double the current vehicle capacity, but it would give travelers much more flexibility. In the fall, when the volume of traffic declines, one ship could be taken out of service.

I’m skeptical that two 280 foot, seaworthy, roll-on, roll-off ferries can be built for $120 million. However, if they are essential links in the plan for the East Lynn Canal road, cost overruns shouldn’t be a problem. Apparently, the road project has no budget ceiling.

If the newly designed ferries are capable of operating safely and efficiently between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, while doubling vehicle capacity, how can the Governor and DOT justify spending half a billion dollars on a road?

• Goldberg is a business owner and Chairman of the Haines Borough Planning Commission.

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