My Turn: Fast ferries are important for the future of Alaska

Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2006

I n his Jan. 9 opinion piece, Deputy Transportation Commissioner Robin Taylor observes some of the major challenges of operating the Alaska Marine Highway System, with particular reference to the fast vehicle ferries and the planning studies we, The Glosten Associates, conducted for AMHS. We certainly appreciate the challenges he faces and offer some further insights into the fast ferry development program.

Mr. Taylor implies that our 2000 Vessel Suitability Study was misleading, and while we dispute many of the specific characterizations, we reply here to the larger, more significant issues.

Labor is the highest cost in operating the existing fleet of conventional mainliners. A fast ferry can travel more than twice as fast as the conventional ferries, completing its mission in half the time. The potential for labor savings is from fully manning the vessel for only one twelve hour period in a day rather than around the clock. It is unfortunate that the subsequent labor negotiations for the fast ferry failed to fully realize these objectives and resulted in premium labor rates, additional shoreside positions and less operating flexibility than planned.

The fuel costs (as well as labor rates) used in the study were approved by AMHS and reflected their 2000 operating costs. We also calculated the impacts of fuel and labor rate increases. While few could have foreseen the recent and abrupt fuel cost increases, even the current costs lie considerably below the break-even fuel costs that would have altered the study's recommendations.

Operating flexibility, had it been realized, could have been converted into overall savings. Operations of a continuously manned AMHS mainliner cannot be turned on and off at will as demand varies. One of the potential benefits of dayboats, such as the fast ferry, is the ability to operate reduced schedules during the off-season, such as alternating days.

The first fast ferry, Fairweather, was actually envisioned by another naval architect before our studies started, and was prescribed in the 2000 Southeast Transportation Plan to serve between Sitka and Juneau as the "Sitka Shuttle." It was proposed as a means of overcoming the scheduling challenge imposed on conventional mainliners by tidal currents in Sergius Narrows. Our Southeast region-wide VSS study was pursuant to a recommendation of the 2000 SATP.

The second fast ferry, Chenega, followed from the recommendation of the Prince William Sound and Copper River Transportation Plan. That plan, representing a consensus of Prince William Sound communities, exchanged their ambitions for a Copper River highway for fast ferry service, and freed the Tustumena to offer improved service to Kodiak and Southwest Alaska.

Our study in 2000 identified appropriate vessel types by route, some conventional and some fast ferries, for a network system of dayboats operating throughout Southeast Alaska. Underlying the study were AMHS traffic demand projections for 2020 that presumed an entire regional network of interconnecting dayboats.

Ultimately the challenge facing Alaska today is the transition from the current AMHS system to a distant future that resembles Washington state and coastal British Columbia - a future in which a network of roads is developed, with road ends connected by short-haul dayboats. The latest version of the Southeast Transportation Plan is consistent with that long-term vision. The challenge is in the transition. The roads cannot be built overnight. The existing mainliners are getting old and are not well suited to the ultimate future service, a future that requires dayboats.

Until the new roads are built, many of the key routes are too long to be served by dayboats operating at conventional speeds. Fast ferries are the only dayboats that can be used on most routes today. As the network of roads develops, many of the longer ferry routes will disappear to be replaced with shorter crossings more economically served by conventional dayboats.

The citizens of Alaska were wise and bold when they established the Alaska Marine Highway System following statehood. AMHS has served Alaska well for more than 40 years, providing a vital service and stimulating the regional and statewide economy. The inevitable transition now facing Alaska will require equally clear vision, bold leadership and resolve.

• Former Juneau resident Bruce Hutchison of Seattle and William L. Hurley Jr. of Seattle are the senior principal and the president of The Glosten Associates Inc.

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