Finding a faster ferry

Lawmakers' supportis needed for the state's fast-ferry planto move ahead

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2001

In a few years, a Juneau resident might board a ferry at 7 a.m. and arrive in Ketchikan at 5 p.m., in time for dinner.

And traveling nearly the entire length of the Panhandle could be an option almost every day, year-round.

That's a big change. Today, under the best case scenario, the Juneau-to-Ketchikan trip would take from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next day. And that wouldn't be possible even every other day.

But the Alaska Marine Highway System might make such leaps in service throughout Southeast, if the Legislature buys into the new technology touted by transportation planners.

State officials are getting ready to award a construction contract for a fast ferry, the first vehicle and passenger vessel of its type ever to be made in the United States. Approved with some reluctance by legislators last year, and expected to link Sitka and Juneau in 2003, it's the first of five high-speed catamarans that the Knowles administration envisions in Southeast over several years.

The ships are being designed to travel 32 knots an hour, nearly twice as fast as the existing fleet. They can carry 250 passengers and the equivalent of 35 sports utility vehicles, says Bob Doll, regional director of the Department of Transportation.

If and when the proposed system is in place, Doll says life in Southeast will be transformed:

With day boats dedicated to specific routes, residents will have much greater certainty about departure and arrival times, which will be consistent and far more convenient than they are now.

Easier travel between communities will mean greater recreational and cultural opportunities.

The costs of goods and services will drop in some communities. In Sitka, residents expect lower grocery prices as regular shopping in Juneau becomes feasible, Doll said.

Extracurricular school activities will increase as travel eats up less time out of the classroom.

And with the possible loss of a state House seat in Southeast after redistricting in 2002, "I think to some degree political cohesion will come out of it, as well," Doll said.

Just as importantly, Department of Transportation officials see a big financial advantage to the plan.

The federal government sometimes pays for capital costs in transportation - in this case, new ships.

But day-to-day operational costs are a state responsibility. The state must cover whatever shortfall exists after ferry revenue - $38.37 million last year - is applied against system expenditures. As a result, the Legislature directly subsidizes the system every year. And about $13 million is being drained out of a marine highway reserve account this year, with the account headed for depletion in two years.

So by building a new system at federal expense and using it in a way that lowers state-funded daily costs, DOT says it can provide a service that's at once better and cheaper for Alaskans.

With fast ferries providing year-round coverage and mainline service reduced in the winter, the Legislature's annual appropriation for the Marine Highway System would be reduced from $27.9 million now to $16 million in 2009, Doll said. That's because crew costs drop sharply with day boat operations, more than offsetting the fast ferries' greater use of fuel per mile, according to DOT.

Officials project that annual operating costs for projected traffic demand in the year 2020 would be $80 million less under this plan, with savings of $242 more million in vessel acquisition.

Doubts at the Capitol

But this purported win-win scenario is far from a done deal at the Capitol. Politically, there are some hurdles because of mere demographics. Southeast is home to just seven of 60 legislators.

House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican, has said he's not yet been convinced that the faster speed of the vehicles isn't lost because of the 4-foot wake the ships can create, which he says might require them to travel more slowly in areas where the environment or safety are of concern. Doll said that has been a problem in Washington state, but there are few such areas in the generally open routes in Southeast, which have mostly vertical coastlines and deeper water.

Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, went out on a DOT-sponsored demonstration run of a passenger-only high-speed catamaran through Sergius Narrows to Sitka last fall. But he still expressed concern the department would reduce winter mainline service and crimp the movement of vehicles and freight around Southeast. Officials insist that won't be the case.

Sen. John Torgerson, a Kasilof Republican, said legislators have viewed fast ferry plans skeptically in part because DOT hasn't provided sufficient information upfront. But DOT recently held a series of public meetings around Southeast.

And there is a general question about whether Railbelt legislators understand the key role of the ferry system, especially for remote communities.

"Things are really up in the air as far as the support of the Legislature," said Darryl Tseu, regional director of the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific, which represents about 450 ferry workers in unlicensed positions in Southeast. "I don't think they truly understand how important the ferry system is to all of Alaska."

The problem of union contracts, though, is a "substantial barrier" to legislative acceptance of the new approach, said Rep. Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican who is co-chairman of the House Finance Committee.

Tseu says he's resigned to layoffs ultimately, although Doll says retirement and attrition will be used to thin the ranks. And Doll says the other two unions are overtly supportive of fast ferries. But Mulder said he'd need some written assurance from labor leaders that the state wouldn't be forced, in effect, to fund two different ferry systems at once.

DOT officials found special pots of federal funds for the first ferry and for the second, which is to be deployed in Prince William Sound.

To get additional funding, the state proposes to sell "grant anticipation revenue vehicle" bonds, commonly referred to as GARVEE bonds. The bonds would be repaid with federal transportation money that is expected on a routine schedule in coming years.

DOT will present a $400 million package to the Legislature that includes $80 million for two more fast ferries. No date for the unveiling has been announced.

GARVEE bonds are "general obligation" bonds that must be approved by voters. With no special election in sight, that doesn't look likely before November 2002.

Democratic Sen. Kim Elton of Juneau, asked about the prospects for passage of the GARVEE bond package by the Legislature, said he's "really hesitant to start crystal-balling it." Although it's federal money being proposed for the ferries, some lawmakers don't like to spend much, no matter what the source, he said.

But as a point in favor of the new ferries, Southeast is the only region with a formal transportation plan, Elton said.

The 1999 Southeast Transportation Plan developed by DOT sets out in detail four zones that would be served by the fast ferries, including a tentative staging schedule for those five vessels and for three smaller shuttle ferries with conventional technology.

The recently revised plan envisions eight new ferries, three new terminals, six terminal modifications and 25 miles of road upgrades, for a total estimated cost of $282 million, within the next five years. (A proposed transfer station near Angoon was scrapped because of timing problems, however.)

Overall, it's a 20-year plan that eventually could cost $400 million to implement.

Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson, a former ferry system director and a member of the House Finance Committee, said there is uncertainty about the transportation plan in the Legislature, partly because of new committee chairmen and new faces in general. But the fact is that three fast ferries in a single contract could be constructed for the replacement cost of just one of the system's aging mainline vessels, he said.

"I'm optimistic that - not this session - but next session we should be able to advance the concept of a multi-high-speed ferry concept in Alaska," Hudson said. "The burden is on the administration. They have to come in and actively encourage the new people on the hill."

Southeast Transportation Plan

The state has narrowed its list of potential contractors for the first fast ferry from five to two, based on design proposals. Financial bids from Derecktor Shipyards of Mamaroneck, N.Y., and Nichol Brothers Boat Builders of Washington state will be opened March 21. The state's target is $38.5 million, and the contract would have an option for two more ferries.

The ferry's home port will be Sitka, and it will make a daily round trip to Juneau, based on demand. Also depending upon demand, it's possible the ferry would travel instead to Petersburg two days a week, Doll said.

The second Southeast ferry is a Juneau-based fast ferry, going to Petersburg from a modified Auke Bay terminal. It could be diverted to Haines or Skagway at times, Doll said.

Next would be a ferry based in Ketchikan to connect with a new terminal on the southern end of South Mitkof Island, possibly stopping in Wrangell. (Petersburg is on North Mitkof, with a road connection to South Mitkof.) It could be deployed in 2005, if voters approve the GARVEE bonds in 2002.

The fourth Southeast fast ferry would connect Juneau, Haines and possibly Skagway, while the fifth would connect Ketchikan with Prince Rupert, British Columbia. But timing on those two is uncertain, Doll said.

In the meantime, the Inter-Island Ferry Authority, a port authority established in 1997 by six small communities, will provide service in the southern Panhandle. A conventional shuttle ferry - 197 feet long, carrying 150 people and 30 vehicles at 15 knots - is being built to link Hollis on Prince of Wales Island with Ketchikan for year-round, twice-daily service.

State officials are talking with the IFA about handling a Wrangell to South Mitkof route. The IFA already plans to link Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island seasonally with Wrangell and South Mitkof.

The state is considering a Haines-Skagway shuttle, which might allow the Juneau-based Malaspina to turn around its summer day boat route in the upper Lynn Canal at Haines, saving on time and fuel.

Another shuttle, now being designed, would connect Metlakatla with Ketchikan and later with a new terminal at Saxman. That $7 million vessel, included in the governor's current budget request, would allow the state to redeploy the Aurora in Prince William Sound. The Aurora, which now runs between Hollis and Ketchikan, would replace the Bartlett on runs to Cordova, Valdez and Whittier.

DOT's conventional shuttles, otherwise similar to the IFA ferries, will have an open car deck, which cuts down on expensive compliance measures to meet safety regulations, Doll said.

When the new ferries are in place, the summer mainline service would remain the same, at about six round trips from Bellingham, Wash., or Prince Rupert per week, Doll said. Winter mainline service would be similar, with one Bellingham round trip and two Prince Rupert round trips per week, but the winter schedule would start several weeks sooner and end a few weeks later once the fast ferries are in place, he said. Doll said no mainline routes would be terminated or any ports skipped in the winter, although he concedes that vague wording in an earlier draft of the Southeast Transportation Plan might have contributed to that persistent rumor, notably in Wrangell.

Doll emphasizes most of the plan needs to be implemented to achieve the cost savings that DOT projects.

Undercutting unity

Local disagreements on transportation issues might have cost Southeast.

Gov. Tony Knowles said recently that the fast ferry for the upper Lynn Canal got set back by years because of a lack of unity. The GARVEE bonds could have gone to voters last November but now are nearly two years off, he noted.

In the face of complaints from Haines and Skagway, DOT is recommending a study of what to do in the upper Lynn Canal.

Joe Geldhof says the debate over a road out of Juneau might have been a critical distraction.

Geldhof, a lawyer for the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, was a leading proponent of improved ferry service instead of a road during debate on the transportation advisory question that appeared on Juneau's city ballot last fall.

Although he was on the winning side in the city vote, Geldhof said the road issue might not just have delayed the GARVEE bonds but ultimately might have killed them. Other states have been issuing the bonds in the meantime, and it's possible the market could get so flooded that Alaska won't be able to find buyers when the time comes, he said. At the very least, "Juneau is going to have to live with the consequences of having a very odd and misfocused debate for another year or two."

George Davidson, executive director of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, said he and other pro-road advocates should not have been interpreted as opposing ferry improvements. "That was unfortunate."

Support for fast ferries was uniform last weekend in Haines at a joint meeting of the Juneau, Haines and Skagway chambers of commerce, Davidson said.

Rep. Hudson agrees the road debate knocked upper Lynn Canal toward the back of the line for a fast ferry. But he's hopeful it doesn't have to stay that way.

If it does, though, Haines and Skagway leaders might consider a port authority like the Inter-Island Ferry Authority and seek federal assistance through Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, according to Robert Venables, economic development director in Haines.

Regionally, there is some ambivalence about moving forward aggressively with the fast ferry plan, though.

The Southeast Conference, a nonprofit organization of business and government leaders, has given tentative support for the transportation plan. By resolution, the conference has called for more research on fast ferries by next fall and then perhaps a year's operation of the Sitka-Juneau day boat before the state commits to any more vessels of that type.

Loren Gerhard, executive director of the conference, said the message to legislators this session is "fund the ferry system in whatever form it takes."

As for the administration's initiative on fast ferries, "It's unfortunate in our view that the tightness of budgets in the state Legislature forces the department to make decisions that are risky," Gerhard said.

Torgerson, the Republican senator from Kasilof, said it's too soon to say whether the Legislature will pass a statewide GARVEE bond package, given that the decision doesn't have to be made until May 2002.

But with reserve funds in the ferry system running low, there is a need to do something, he said. "The Legislature needs to get in and fix it. ... I don't think anybody doubts that it needs some upgrading."

Bill McAllister can be reached at

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