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SE mayors, public unimpressed with ferry concept

Public testimony on 'Day Boat ACF' broadly negative

Posted: March 5, 2013 - 5:58pm  |  Updated: March 6, 2013 - 1:08am
Don Etheridge testifies in front of the Joint House/Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday about his concerns on the new ferries being proposed by the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Don Etheridge testifies in front of the Joint House/Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday about his concerns on the new ferries being proposed by the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

Members of the public, including the mayors of Haines and Skagway, who testified Tuesday afternoon on the concept design report released last week for the updated Alaska-class ferry expressed unhappiness with aspects of the design and raised concerns about the proposed ships’ capabilities.

The public was invited to testify at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Transportation committees, at which legislators also questioned Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials, who maintain the new ferries will operate safely and efficiently while being built for less than $50 million apiece.

Mike Korsmo of Skagway, a tugboat captain who is also a member of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, was the first to testify.

Korsmo kept his remarks brief, but said he has “some issues with the new plan” and does not believe that operating two of the “day boats” proposed by the state on Lynn Canal will increase capacity or improve service in the communities of Juneau, Haines and Skagway, where the proposed ferries would operate.

Another ship captain, former Juneau Assemblymember Don Etheridge, testified that he believes an open-deck design will lead to icing inside the ship, due to sea spray, precipitation and freezing conditions that are common on Lynn Canal and other Southeast Alaska waterways during wintertime.

“The icing conditions, many times during the winter, that is going to build a tremendous amount of ice in the stern of that boat,” said Etheridge. He suggested the ferries would need large heaters to prevent icing.

The design concept report for the “Day Boat ACF” calls for design teams to consider a partially open aft deck, which DOT&PF Deputy Commissioner Reuben Yost said last Thursday would cover 33 of the 53 vehicle spaces, going by the “Roadmap” concept design included in the report as an example of how the ship could be designed.

DOT&PF officials said at that Thursday hearing that the partially open deck would provide cost savings for both construction and operation of the Alaska-class ferries.

Concerns over the idea of even a partially open deck were a theme throughout the public testimony, with Haines Borough Planning Commission Chairman Rob Goldberg and Skagway Mayor Stan Selmer suggesting the DOT&PF should cover over the proposed opening.

“I’ve not heard anything from DOT as to how they could put in a roof over this open aft area that would then eliminate some of the hue and cry that we’ve heard from operators, captains, users, et cetera,” said Selmer.

Alaska Marine Highway System General Manager John Falvey said at last Thursday’s hearing that a lightweight covering may also be considered for the deck opening.

Malcolm Menzies of Juneau, a former appointed member of the Borough Assembly, was one of the few members of the public who did not criticize the DOT&PF concept design report in his testimony Tuesday. He said he welcomes efforts to reduce AMHS operating costs.

“The one thing I do know about sailing the Lynn Canal, whether it’s Juneau-Haines or Juneau-Skagway and back, we do not need staterooms,” Menzies said. “We do not need fancy meals. We just need to be able to get there.”

Haines Mayor Stephanie Scott defended the public process that led to the Alaska-class ferry concept’s earlier transformation from a “shuttle ferry,” similar to the Day Boat ACF now under consideration, to a 350-foot ship with amenities that would be capable of serving routes throughout Southeast Alaska, rather than being tailored for Lynn Canal day boat service.

“The mission crept, and the design morphed into a broader mission, a better design,” said Scott. “I submit that the thing to do is to go back to the Alaska-class ferry design, for which we’ve already spent $3 million, and attempt to publicly tweak it.”

Fellow Haines resident Kathleen Menke agreed.

“I’m not sure what the problem was with the 350-foot, midsize Alaska-class ferry,” Menke said. “We were hoping for it. We wanted it.”

State officials, including Gov. Sean Parnell, who directed the DOT&PF to pivot away from the 350-foot concept back to the original shuttle ferry concept last fall, have contended that the result of the public process on the Alaska-class ferry was undesirable due to cost overruns.

One hundred twenty million dollars were budgeted for the Alaska-class ferry project. DOT&PF officials have said the cost estimates for the ferry last year, before that design was scrapped, were as high as $170 million.

Scott and Menke suggested that if the 350-foot ferry can be built outside Alaska for less money, it should be, or else the state should shoulder any additional cost for the larger ferry. Parnell and the DOT&PF have expressed a desire to see the ships built in Ketchikan.

Meanwhile, Douglas resident Sandy Williams said he is concerned by the prospect of “design by committee.”

“What I’m seeing here is what got us into trouble in the first place,” said Williams, concluding that he believes safety concerns over the ships should be left to the U.S. Coast Guard. Like Menzies, he praised AMHS officials for their approach to the ferries’ design.

Later in the meeting, as Yost and Falvey were questioned by committee legislators, Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins pressed them on whether the DOT&PF was including “captains and masters” in the design process for the ferries.

“Not at this point with this design concept,” Falvey said, adding, “We will be taking input, and I’m sure we’ll be getting input from captains.”

Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, expressed concern that the public process for this roughly 280-foot version of the Alaska-class ferry is less robust than the process that led to the 350-foot concept.

“I’m kind of almost getting the feel that because we took too much public comment and reacted to it, that … we’re a little bit fearful of taking as much this time,” said Gattis, adding that she believes it is “imperative” to listen to marine captains.

After Falvey responded that DOT&PF administrators will meet with ferry personnel as part of the process, Kreiss-Tomkins spoke up again.

“I’d just like to echo Rep. Gattis’ comment,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “I’ve lost count how many captains, masters and marine engineers … have contacted me privately to express their concerns, which would suggest that there’s no forum for them to do so through the ferry system. And it seems like there’s a lot of operational and institutional knowledge that could be tapped into.”

Yost said at the beginning of the meeting that the DOT&PF is taking public comment on the design concept report all month.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, suggested the DOT&PF use that time to pitch its concept to Juneau, Haines and Skagway.

“Since D-Day has been moved back a little bit, I think that affected communities would love to have someone from DOT make a presentation to the affected communities and the councils and assemblies before you make an ultimate final decision,” said Egan. “It’s very important. It’s our highway.”

“That’s a very good point, and we will take that under advisement,” Falvey replied.

Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford attended Tuesday’s public hearing, but he did not testify.

Asked afterward for his thoughts, Sanford said he has some concerns about the open-deck concept and is drafting a letter expressing his concerns over the proposed vessels’ safety.

“I’m concerned about ice buildup and snow and freezing spray,” Sanford said. “I wouldn’t want … my car out there in the open-deck area on Lynn Canal during wintertime.”

But Sanford voiced confidence in the DOT&PF.

“I don’t think DOT and the engineers and the design people are going to give us a boat, a ship, that is unsafe,” said Sanford. He added, “I think it’ll function well, if we can get some of these other design things taken care of.”

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

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