My Turn: The reality of running the fast ferries in Alaska

Posted: Monday, January 09, 2006

By Robin Taylor

In the ongoing debate over the usefulness or appropriateness of adding the fast vehicle ferries (FVFs) to the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet, it's important to distinguish between projected and actual operating costs and conditions.

As with many instances where theory meets the harsh light of reality, this administration is trying to make the FVFs work, but we are way beyond the rosy scenario projected by the Knowles administration.

Here are just a few examples of where the program has jumped the track, if we can mix our metaphors:

The Knowles administration relied heavily on the numbers and projections contained in a June 2000 vessel suitability study conducted for the state by Glosten Associates of Seattle.

First, the Glosten study gave an inaccurate picture of the cost of labor in many respects. It projected an average cost of 150 man-hours per revenue day at $23.57 per hour to operate the vessels. Our reality has been 192 man-hours per day at $29.70 per hour, based on Coast Guard regulations. This 61 percent increase ($5,702 versus $3,535 per day) is due to higher crewing requirements under the High Speed Craft Code, coupled with collective bargaining agreements finalized after the Glosten study was done.

Second, the Glosten study used a per-gallon cost of fuel of $.90 per gallon, yet in fiscal year 2006, our fleet average has been $2.25, an increase of 150 percent. Our experience shows that the fast ferries consume, on average, 4,575 gallons of fuel per operating day. At 90 cents a gallon, that totals $4,117 for fuel, but at $2.25 per gallon, it jumps to $10,294.

It is a mistake to assume that, since the fuel cost is the same for all boats, cost increases are irrelevant to the operating costs of the FVFs. This is because the cost of fuel for FVFs, at 36 percent of total cost, equals a larger piece of the operating expense of the vessel than it does for a conventional ferry (21 percent of total cost). And, the larger conventional ferries run 24 hours a day, making more stops and carrying more cars and passengers.

In addition, the Glosten study grossly underestimated the cost, in time and dollars, of training crews under the High Speed Craft Code. Their estimate was five round trips for route training, yet the code has required 12 round trips. These are no passenger, non-revenue, full training days that cost an average of $16,000 each day, or about $112,000 more for each port than Glosten estimated.

The Glosten study also proposed a vessel of a specific size and configuration for operating year-round in Southeast Alaska seas, with an estimate of 31 days out of service annually due to weather and scheduled maintenance. This has not been borne out by our experience, by which we are now estimating 54 days per year. This is mainly because the Knowles administration made the decision to alter the design of the fast ferries, by lowering the "wet deck" by 3 feet. This means it cannot operate in as heavy seas as Glosten's vessel would have.

Another maintenance factor has been to deal with occasional logs ingested by the jet intakes on the vessel, which, while adding the expense of hiring a diver to remove the debris, have not yet caused delays or cancellations. This has resulted from another questionable Knowles administration decision - not to put screens on the intakes because they would add weight and reduce the power of the jets.

In addition, the aluminum high-speed vessels have incurred unexpected structural damage, while operating in what would be considered normal winter seaway operating conditions of Southeast Alaska. Our objective, in running the FVFs between Juneau and Ketchikan this winter, is to establish the actual parameters for realistic operations.

The former officials of the Knowles administration based their decision to add the FVFs to the marine highway fleet on economic factors and theoretical modeling that supported their objectives.

This administration, however, must operate the FVFs under the actual conditions in which we find ourselves each day.

• Robin Taylor is the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities deputy commissioner for marine operations.

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