Last month’s decision to change gears and focus on an option to order two smaller ferries rather than the larger Alaska-class ferry was a move undertaken to return to the original, less expensive 2006 concept for a Southeast Alaska shuttle ferry, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Pat Kemp and his staff told a joint meeting of the Transportation Committee Thursday afternoon.
Kemp, who was appointed last month by Gov. Sean Parnell after acting as commissioner since October 2012, said the Alaska-class ferry plan was dropped after concern mounted, including from the governor himself, over rising project costs. He said two independent estimates suggested a total project cost of between $150 million and $170 million.
“It was our feeling then that the costs weren’t going to go down,” said Kemp. “We were concerned about the costs growing.”
Kemp and Capt. John Falvey, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, said the original plan in 2006 was for a roll-on/roll-off, or RORO, ferry not to exceed 305 feet. They attributed the “morphing” of the concept into the 350-foot Alaska-class ferry as an artifact of an extended public process, with Kemp referring to the mutation as “project scope creep.”
“As time went by, we realized that we might want to have a very aggressive public process,” Falvey said, pointing to public meetings in various communities held to discuss the ferry concept.
Of the concept itself, Falvey explained, “As the commissioner said, it kind of morphed. It slowly but surely got more costly than the $120 million that we had started with from the very, very beginning.”
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, expressed interest in seeing how that evolution took place.
“There’s got to be enormous amounts of documentation sort of showing this thing growing from a fairly small roll-on/roll-off to a larger vessel,” said French. “Probably some of that documentation would help us see the process you went through to get where we are today.”
The vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Doug Isaacson, R-North Pole, said that being from the Interior, he was not intimately familiar with the ferry project, but he had spoken with mayors of coastal communities who were “frustrated” by the “unilateral decision” last month to focus on acquiring two smaller ferries instead of the Alaska-class ship.
“What public involvement was there to move it to two vessels instead of one?” Isaacson asked.
“There was no public involvement for making the change back to a shuttle ferry concept,” Kemp replied. “That was a manager’s management decision. The governor was fully engaged with it.”
While the DOT&PF representatives said they were looking at a concept to order two 280-foot RORO shuttle ferries for within the $120 million originally budgeted for the ferry project, they said they did not have a preliminary cost estimate available for the committee. Kemp said one would be provided along with a design concept report.
“We are in the conceptual design phase,” said Kemp. “We’re working hard right now on a design concept report. We should have it in a week or two.”
Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, mentioned “rumors” suggesting the DOT&PF is considering an open-deck design for the shuttle ferries, which are intended to serve ports on Lynn Canal.
“There are a whole lot of my constituents that are upset or concerned that this ship is going to be open-deck concept,” Egan said. “And I think that’s a formula for failure.”
Kemp replied, “I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by what we come up with.”
Several minutes later, Kreiss-Tomkins asked Kemp directly if he could say whether the shuttle ferry design would be open-deck or closed-deck.
“At this time, no, Representative,” Kemp answered. “We’re still working it.”
Kreiss-Tomkins also asked, “What ports in Southeast, if any, can currently accommodate a roll-on/roll-off design?”
“Right now, we could go with the fast ferry stern berth in Juneau, and we would have to look at some modification to Haines right now,” Falvey answered.
When Kreiss-Tomkins followed up by asking how much it would cost to modify ferry terminals to accommodate the ships, Deputy Commissioner Reuben Yost responded.
“It would be in the neighborhood of $15 to $20 million,” said Yost. “We haven’t looked at real detailed designs of that.”
The committee also addressed Kemp’s reorganization of the department, including Yost being named deputy commissioner to succeed Mike Neussl, but Falvey, the longtime general manager of the AMHS, assuming Neussl’s former role as overseer of the ferry system.
Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, who chaired the meeting, referred to an opinion by legislative counsel Hilary Martin suggesting Kemp should have consulted with the Marine Transportation Advisory Board under a statute describing the board’s role before making the changes.
“Whoever … holds that position, the MTAB committee is supposed to be at least consulted and visited with about that,” Wilson told Kemp.
Kemp said he was unaware of that statute.
“The thing that I’m trying to demonstrate is I’m trying to get this down to our director level,” said Kemp, who argued that giving deputy commissioners more general duties and giving directors more authority over pieces of the transportation system would end the “silo” system under which aviation, highways and marine operations staff were isolated from one another in the past.
Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said he approves of Kemp’s department reorganization.
“I personally like the way you’re going with the department,” Bishop told Kemp. “The right hand has to do what the left hand’s doing, and this mission creep might not have occurred if the right hand knew what the left hand was doing.”
The meeting in the Alaska State Capitol’s Barnes Conference Room was well-attended despite the fact that public testimony was not allowed. Every chair was filled, with some attendees and legislative staff forced to stand for part or all of the meeting.
Next Thursday, the joint committee will hear public responses to the ferry concept changes, Egan said.
“(In) the emails and letters that my staff have received, there are a lot of great suggestions, and some of those suggestions are from former captains of the Alaska Marine Highway System,” said Egan. “So I urge you to listen to their concerns.”
Speaking after the meeting, Egan, Kreiss-Tomkins, Wilson and House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who attended most of the meeting despite not sitting on the House Transportation Committee, all said they had heard concerns and complaints from constituents in their Southeast districts over the changes.
“The basic thing was that they didn’t like the surprise,” Wilson said, who also said that the DOT&PF officials’ explanations had “made sense” but merited additional study by the committee. “I mean, it was just such a surprise.”
“I think that it was really a terrible process that got done behind closed doors,” said Kerttula, who expressed concern that the shuttle ferry plan could be “cover” for the proposed Juneau Access Road, which would extend Juneau’s road system to a proposed new ferry terminal at Katzehin.
“They could have just stopped, said, ‘Let’s take a good hard look at this,’ and brought everybody back in,” Kerttula added. “That’s what’s bugging me. I don’t have any problem with saying, ‘Let’s take a break.’ But when they dumped the whole thing and turned immediately to something else, where’s the process there? Where are my constituents and my voice in any of that? It doesn’t exist.”
For Egan’s part, he said, “I’m going to remain open. I’m still concerned about the approach that’s being taken, and we’ll get more information Tuesday.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at email@example.com.