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Mat-Su wanted ferry, gets $78 million landing craft and wonders what to do with it

Posted: May 9, 2011 - 8:58pm

ANCHORAGE — All the Mat-Su Borough wanted was a ferryboat. One that would take passengers and vehicles on the short hop across Knik Arm between Port MacKenzie and Anchorage, provide a new way to travel to coastal communities around Cook Inlet, and improve access to undeveloped borough land where business might take root.

Something simple, rugged and reliable, the borough said.

What it actually got is a unique, shape-shifting, ice-breaking, $78 million landing craft named Susitna.

Now the borough is trying to figure out what to do with it, and that isn’t proving easy.

To start with, the borough doesn’t have a ferry landing. To run a year-round commuter ferry — the original idea — it needs at least two, one on the Mat-Su side and one on the Anchorage side. The borough has money to build a single walk-on-only landing at Port MacKenzie. It expects to complete construction of that landing in the summer of 2012.

So, with the commuter ferry option on hold, borough officials are scrambling to find a place and a purpose for the ship.

Because the ship came about as a joint venture with the Navy, and the Navy wanted it classified as a high-speed vessel, the Susitna crew must have more advanced training than for a typical ferry, according to the Coast Guard. Inspection requirements also will be more stringent. While the ship received a waiver allowing it to be classified as high speed, it doesn’t actually travel at high speeds.

Borough leaders insist that despite the obstacles a successful ferry operation is just around the corner. For them, the ferry is the realization of a long-held dream of a quick connector to Anchorage.

“It’s obvious that we need that link because since the 1950s they’ve been talking about a bridge across the Inlet,” said Elizabeth Gray, assistant borough manager. “And we find the ferry is a great stair step to getting that bridge and proving the need for that bridge.”

Maybe the Susitna could be used as an offshore oil drilling support vessel or a scientific research ship able to pull up on remote Alaska beaches, borough officials say. Maybe it would work for dinner cruises or as a way for tourists to reach the Kenai Peninsula.

So far, none of the efforts to put the boat to work has gone beyond talk.

The Susitna remains docked where it was built in Ketchikan. With work on the ship itself nearly complete, the most pressing challenge of the project is to build the specialized docks necessary for cars and trucks to drive on and off the ferry. The borough has been trying to develop such landings since at least 2001.

So far it hasn’t been able to patch together enough money for construction. On the Anchorage coast, there’s still no approved landing spot.

“We’ve had our permit at Port Mac for eight years, and I still don’t know where it’s going on the Anchorage side,” said Mat-Su Port Director Marc Van Dongen.

After then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens secured a $20 million earmark for the ship in 2007, the project attracted attention and derision as a “ferry to nowhere” from Fox News, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call and federal budget watchdogs.

Then-Borough Manager John Duffy took offense and fired back.

“This catch phrase with its echoes of the ‘bridge to nowhere’ in Ketchikan, hardly seems appropriate considering the ferry will serve the 3 most populated areas of Alaska,” namely Anchorage, the Mat-Su and the Kenai, Duffy wrote to the Fox News reporter. “It may not be the Staten Island Ferry but it is not a ‘ferry to nowhere.’ “

Still, only a few dozen people work in the Port MacKenzie area. In the beginning, there wouldn’t be much call for passenger-only traffic, Van Dongen said.

The new, nearly complete Goose Creek Correctional Center is nine miles up the road from the port. It might create some demand for the ferry, as inmates, visitors and employees travel between Anchorage and the prison.

Some remote communities, such as the village of Tyonek, on the east side of Upper Cook Inlet, are clamoring for ferry service, but their populations are tiny. The city and borough of Kenai passed resolutions in support of ferry service, but no one knows what a ticket would cost or how many people would buy them. Travel time to Kenai by ferry would be as long or longer than by car.

Because of its beaching capability, and depending on tides, the Susitna could operate as a vehicle ferry in summer without a special dock. The borough already is working on places it could pull up in Kenai loaded with fishermen or dipnetters.

Maybe businesses developing coastal projects will use it to haul materials and workers. Shell Oil has expressed interest. So have several Alaska Native corporations, according to borough officials.

Koniag Inc. considered using the ferry to haul construction supplies for a brown bear viewing center on Kodiak Island. But the Susitna wasn’t ready in time for this year’s construction season, said King Hufford, the corporation’s director of logistics and marketing, who was in Ketchikan for a February sea trial.

Cook Inlet Region Inc. says the ferry could be used to haul workers and construction materials to its proposed Fire Island wind farm, if CIRI is able to line up buyers for the power so the project can proceed.

Afognak Native Corp., which already leases land in the 14-square-mile Mat-Su port district, says regular ferry service could help get workers to the industrial area.

The ferry isn’t planned to arrive in the Mat-Su until the summer of 2012, when a floating dock for walk-ons is expected to be ready. The borough does have a $4.5 million ferry terminal. The building was finished in 2007.

“If we never use the ferry, we’ll just convert it all to office space,” Van Dongen said.

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