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AMHS to look at operating MV Susitna

Borough trying to sell experimental ferry

Posted: February 4, 2013 - 9:14pm  |  Updated: February 5, 2013 - 1:00am

The Alaska Marine Highway System is developing a feasibility study to determine whether the M/V Susitna, a 195-foot experimental icebreaking ferry owned by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, could fit into the ferry system’s operations, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities acknowledged Monday.

Jeremy Woodrow said in an email that the feasibility study, which has no estimated completion date, “will address the capital and operating costs associated with acquiring the MV Susitna and operating the vessel on potentially new routes within the state.”

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is looking for potential buyers after the Borough Assembly decided the Susitna would cost too much to operate for intended runs across Knik Arm and around upper Cook Inlet.

AMHS officials inspected and rode on the ferry last fall, but Woodrow wrote, “The determination then was that AMHS did not have a route, or area with the demand that would work within the MV Susitna’s operational limitations.”

Borough Manager John Moosey said in an email Thursday evening that the DOT&PF had “politely rebuffed” an overture from the borough after borough staff met with Michael Neussl, then the deputy commissioner for marine operations, to discuss whether the AMHS could use the Susitna.

“I have recently contacted the Governor about renewed interest, in light of DOT department changes,” Moosey wrote, an apparent reference to Neussl’s resignation last month and the reorganization of DOT&PF portfolios under new Commissioner Pat Kemp. “We have had no further discussions.”

Woodrow indicated the feasibility study is being prepared now due to discussions with the borough and requests from state legislators to consider the option of adding the Susitna to the 11-ship AMHS fleet.

“It’s important to note that this study is strictly exploratory and does not guarantee that AMHS will expand its fleet via the (Susitna) or add new routes (or) ports to the system,” Woodrow added.

The Susitna was constructed as a U.S. Navy prototype for an icebreaking landing craft.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, one of the legislators who has urged the DOT&PF to consider operating the Susitna, said that while the ship’s design is not conducive to the dock types at many Southeast Alaska ferry terminals, it is well-suited for serving a route in his southwestern Kenai Peninsula district.

“There’s a concrete barge-loading ramp right inside the Homer harbor, and there’s also one over in Seldovia,” said Seaton. “That’s what the Susitna is made for, is going onto a beach with a concrete ramp on it, and drive-on, drive-off.”

Seldovia, like Juneau and most other Southeast Alaska communities, is not connected to the North American road system. As a result, mainliners must shuttle passengers and vehicles across Kachemak Bay, between Homer and Seldovia, before proceeding along the west route to Kodiak and the Aleutian Island chain.

Seaton said he wants the AMHS to conduct an analysis of using the Susitna for the Homer-Seldovia loop because he thinks having a dedicated vessel for that run would improve Aleutian Island service.

“We could actually make the (M/V) Kennicott and the (M/V) Tustumena much more effective going out the chain and giving more service to the chain, because they wouldn’t have to be coming in and doing the shuttle back and forth between Homer and Seldovia before it went back to Kodiak and down the chain,” said Seaton, referring to the oceangoing mainline ferries that operate along that route.

The Kennicott normally provides service as far west as Kodiak. The Tustumena is currently the only ship to make regular runs along the Aleutian chain.

The Susitna was originally built in Ketchikan for about $80 million, with substantial federal assistance in the ship’s construction. It is now docked in Ward Cove.

In his email Thursday, Moosey wrote that there is no set asking price for the Susitna.

The DOT&PF is also looking at adding two “shuttle ferry” vessels to serve Lynn Canal as part of the retooled Alaska-class ferry project. Last year’s concept for one 350-foot ferry capable of extended runs was axed in December, as Gov. Sean Parnell and state officials announced it had gone over the $120 million allocated for the project.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct a typographic error and add information on current ferry routes.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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