My Turn: The Katzehin ferries - design by politics

Judging by the way the Alaska Department of Transportation is moving full steam ahead with the Juneau Access and construction of two Alaska Class Ferry day boats, one would expect the agency would have been prepared to defend both projects when they presented the Draft Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan (SATP) in Juneau last week. That wasn’t the case though. Many questions were left unanswered. And that may be because an engineer was on the stage and the momentum pushing these is all politics.


To be fair to Andy Hughes, DOT’s planning chief for Southeast Alaska, he prefaced his presentation by saying the meeting wasn’t intended to take comments on the Juneau Access project. He said that opportunity would come when the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) is released. And like most engineers I know, Hughes probably prefers to leave controversial issues to his bosses and politicians higher up in the agency.

We know that no matter what option is chosen, operation of Lynn Canal and all other Alaska Marine Highway ferries will remain dependent on state subsidies. Unlike the state’s roads though, which are fully subsidized by taxpayers, ferry costs are partially offset by fares collected from users. But the SATP doesn’t even discuss the revenue side of the equation in its cost comparisons of the different alternatives.

For running shuttle ferries coming and going from Katzehin at the end of the Juneau Access road, the revenue picture would be nothing more than an educated guess. DOT may be able to tell us the capacity they’re designing for, but that doesn’t translate to fares collected. What matters is how many people actually board the boats. Ultimately, that won’t be known until the highway has been open for several years.

If they’ve overestimated shuttle ferry traffic as many people believe, then the Katzehin ferries will wind up running well below capacity most of the time. Either that or the frequency of sailings will be reduced, meaning the boat and crew will have a lot of down time during the day. In both scenarios, either revenue will be less or the state will raise fares to offset higher than expected operating costs.

This leads to another question. Should they even be designing the ferry itself without knowing what the real demand will be?

The Alaska Class dayboat design is already completed though. The state has asked Vigor Industrial to provide a price proposal for building one at their Ketchikan Shipyard. And unless they’ve been drastically changed from the design that was made public in January, these boats don’t look like economical shuttle ferries.

For starters, there’s no need for the 68-seat food court on trips less than an hour long. That’s like a flight from Juneau to Ketchikan in which Alaska Airlines provides nothing more than a complimentary half ounce bag of pretzels and a cup of juice of water. The 46-seat library/quiet area and the children’s play area aren’t essential either. And there’s certainly not going to be enough time to show movies in the 40-seat lounge on the upper deck.

If these ferries are primarily intended to be shuttles from Katzehin to Haines and Skagway, then it would seem logical to save money by eliminating such user amenities. But the more important questions are about the hull and engine designs.

In the Draft Design Concept Report prepared for DOT, Coastwise Corporation examined 13 day boat routes with the highest priority being Auke Bay/Lynn Canal. They explained that fuel efficiency was critical for the longer routes, so they focused on vessels with displacement hulls which are most efficient at normal service speeds.

But if the Katzehin/Haines shuttle was the focus instead of being the third priority route, would they have found catamaran hulls to be the better design option? And given that the Katzehin/Haines shuttle will spend less time running at design speed than idling while moored, different engines might be more appropriate too.

If the primary purpose of these boats are to be the shuttles from Katzehin, then they should be designed to be economically efficient on those routes. That would mean plugging those costs into the Juneau Access road analysis. And for politicians arguing that building a half billion dollar road makes good economic sense it will be harder to sell, especially to the majority of Alaskans who live outside the Lynn Canal corridor.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.


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