ANCHORAGE — Replacing the troubled Tustumena ferry, which was out of commission for nearly a year, is the top priority of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, the group’s chairman says.
Chairman Bob Venables, of Sitka, said at a recent board meeting that the Tustumena is important to the transportation infrastructure of Western Alaska. The vessel returned to service last month, six months later than expected.
The Alaska Marine Highway System has contracted with a Seattle marine engineering firm to help with the process of replacing the vessel, the Alaska Journal of Commerce reported.
The marine highway system’s general manager, Capt. John Falvey, said it will likely cost several hundred million dollars to replace the Tustumena. The state’s Vessel Replacement Fund has enough money to complete pre-construction work, he said.
“The new Tusty is probably going to have to be similar to the old Tusty,” Falvey told the 11-member coastal community board Nov. 13.
The new ferry won’t be any smaller than the Tustumena at 296 feet because much of the route is exposed to open ocean, Falvey said. Cost considerations, combined with small docks at some of the Aleutian ports, will limit it to about 340 feet at most.
At 382 feet, the Kennicott was unable to dock at all of the ports in the Aleutians when it was used as a fill-in while the Tustumena was out of service, he said.
Kodiak mayor and board member Pat Branson said her community experienced about a 25 percent drop in tourist activity from reduced ferry service while the Tustumena was out of commission.
Before the new Tustumena is ready, officials plan to have two Alaska-class ferries built. Construction on the first of the 280-foot “day boats,” which lack crew accommodations or passenger cabins, is scheduled to begin in mid-2014 with delivery of the vessels in 2016, said Reuben Yost, deputy commissioner at the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.
Once both vessels are running Lynn Canal routes between Skagway, Haines and Juneau, one of the mainline vessels will be retired. Despite a net gain of one ship, efficient engines and smaller crews — 44 crewmembers for both day boats versus 80-plus for one mainliner — will cut Lynn Canal operating expenses from $22 million to $15 million annually, Yost said.
Mainliners will supplement the day boat service on the four- to five-hour trip, with two runs per week in summer and one in winter, he said.
The new ferries will accommodate up to 300 passengers and about 50 vehicles each.
Facing a $3.5 million budget gap, the state ferry system has reduced service, eliminated two seasonal promotions and cut certain commissions for travel agents. Agents won’t get paid for booking authorized military travel and in-state travel by Alaska residents.
“We really wanted travel agencies to focus on riders we wouldn’t otherwise have,” Yost said.