Members of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board questioned Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Pat Kemp and his staff during the board’s meeting Tuesday in Juneau on changes announced last month to ferry procurement plans.
While Kemp was acting commissioner of the DOT&PF, the state announced late last year that it was abandoning its plans to order a 350-foot-long Alaska-class ferry in favor of getting two smaller ferries for less than what department staff and Gov. Sean Parnell said the Alaska-class vessel would cost.
MTAB, the role of which is to advise the DOT&PF and governor on issues related to the Alaska Marine Highway System, was not consulted before the announcement was made.
At Tuesday’s meeting at the Vocational Training and Resource Center, MTAB members expressed dismay that state officials did not tell the board about their plans to change direction on the ferry proposal.
“I feel like as a board member, it was one-sided, and I don’t appreciate that feeling,” said Maxine Thompson. “You know, MTAB has been right there for the whole system.”
MTAB Chairman Robert Venables echoed Thompson, while Gerald Hope and Joshua Howes voiced similar sentiments.
“I think that everybody on this board was pretty taken by surprise by this announcement,” Howes said.
Vice-Chairman Mark Eliason offered warmer words for the changes to the plan than did his fellow members, but he agreed with Thompson nonetheless.
“I actually think it’s a very good plan,” said Eliason. “But my issue’s with communications and how we heard about it. The MTAB board deserves better than that, in my opinion.”
Kemp, along with AMHS General Manager Capt. John Falvey, Deputy Commissioner Reuben Yost and Coastwise Corp. Principal Engineer Patrick Eberhardt, a consultant on the project, laid out the state’s reasons for moving away from the Alaska-class ferry proposal toward the two smaller ships, which were described as “dayboats” that would provide service in Lynn Canal between Juneau and Haines and Haines and Skagway.
The project cost for the Alaska-class ferry was estimated at between $150 million and $170 million last year, according to Kemp, representing a significant overrun from the $120 million appropriated for the new ship.
“I think what had happened was we let the public involvement process take over on the design of the ship, and we started adding amenities and things like that, and no one was watching the fiscal constraint on it,” Kemp explained.
Kemp went on to say that Parnell and DOT&PF staff decided to hit the “reset button” and steer the project back toward its original 2006 concept as a “shuttle ferry” for Southeast Alaska, as well as toward procuring two ships with fast vehicle loading and unloading capability.
“It takes two day boats to provide the service in Lynn Canal that’s currently being provided by the (M/V) Malaspina,” said Yost, referring to the larger ferry that is a common sight on northern Southeast Alaska waterways.
Kemp said the new ferries may be as long as 300 feet.
That suggestion drew skepticism from MTAB member Ron Bressette.
“So if I understand this correctly, we can’t build one vessel for 350 feet for $116 million, but we’re going to build two 300-foot vessels for the same amount of money,” Bressette said.
“Something, isn’t it?” Kemp replied.
Falvey explained that by designing a smaller ferry without crew quarters or “amenities” planned for the Alaska-class vessel, costs for the new proposed ship are significantly reduced.
“This will strictly be a day vessel that will not be as complex to design or build,” added Falvey.
Pressed by Bressette as to why the DOT&PF was not aware of the estimated cost overrun earlier than last year, Falvey said an accurate cost estimate was not available until deep into the design process for the Alaska-class ferry.
“It was very difficult to get a really educated cost analysis of what it was going to cost to build that hull much more before this time,” Falvey said.
A preliminary cost estimate for the proposed shuttle ferries has not been released, although Kemp told a joint Finance Committee meeting last week at the Alaska State Capitol that one would be provided along with the preliminary design report he said Tuesday should be available next week.
Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt, who represents Southwest Alaska on MTAB, compared the unstated cost of the shuttle ferries to the rough cost estimate that sunk the Alaska-class ferry last year.
“If an unknown cost doesn’t work for the ferry that we’ve been talking about for the last four years, then how do unknown costs now work for two ferries that haven’t previously been discussed?” Marquardt asked.
Eberhardt indicated that the expected cost per ship is close to $50 million.
“You’ve heard a lot about the open car deck,” Eberhardt said, referring to the rumor that the new ferry design will include a vehicle deck open to the elements. “If you open the car deck up even a little on the stern, it changes the internal classification of that space and allows you significant cost savings in terms of your side doors, ventilation, power requirements on the car deck.”
Falvey also revealed more about the ships’ design, saying they will have oceangoing hulls without sponsons, the stabilizing protrusions from the hull found on most AMHS ferries that he blamed for causing sea spray in rough weather.
“That’s what we should be telling the public,” said board member Cathie Roemmich, chief executive officer of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.
Hope and Venables asked where the Malaspina would be redeployed once the new shuttle ferries go into service — Kemp suggested construction on the ships could begin early next year — but Falvey said that remains to be determined.
“I think we’d have to take a very good look at that,” Falvey responded.
Kemp left the meeting at 11 a.m., but before he did, he addressed his department’s lack of consultation with MTAB on the ferry plan changes, as well as his recent reorganization of deputy commissioners and directors’ portfolios.
“I sincerely apologize for not keeping the board involved and not knowing more about the board,” said Kemp, adding that when he was a deputy commissioner under former Commissioner Marc Luiken, he had very little contact with the AHMS — one of the reasons, he said, why he reorganized the DOT&PF. “I do apologize for not having the sensitivity. Quite frankly, I didn’t know.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at email@example.com.