The Alaska Marine Highway System's experimental winter fast-ferry runs are attracting more passengers than when they began.
But ferry system chief Robin Taylor doubts enough people will use the Southeast sailings to continue the service into another year.
"We'd have to see some pretty significant increases, because of the high cost of operation," Taylor said.
The experiment involves the state's two fast vehicle ferries, which are 235-foot catamarans that can carry up to 250 passengers and 35 vehicles.
The Cordova-based Chenega was taken off its Prince William Sound runs to sail from Ketchikan to Wrangell and Petersburg and back three days a week. The Juneau-based Fairweather cut back its sailings to Skagway, Haines and Sitka so it could run to and from Petersburg the same three days. The ships connect midday in Petersburg, allowing a one-day ferry connection between Juneau and Ketchikan.
The ships were close to empty on some of the early November sailings, with fewer than two dozen people on board. But by mid-December, as many as 175 passengers were on some runs.
"We were concerned at first that it would take a while to develop ridership," said Taylor, deputy commissioner of marine transportation for the state. "But I think that ridership is beginning to be reflected, at least over the Christmas holidays it certainly did."
The Juneau-Petersburg sailings were the most popular, averaging 105 passengers each way during December. The Ketchikan-Wrangell-Petersburg sailings drew an average of 73 passengers each way.
The least-used sailing was Wrangell southbound to Ketchikan, which picked up an average of about a dozen passengers, in addition to those who boarded in Petersburg.
State Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said constituents in Wrangell and Petersburg told her they enjoy riding the fast ferries to shop in the larger communities of Juneau and Ketchikan. But she said small-town merchants are feeling the pinch.
"Usually the people couldn't afford to go anywhere else so they were doing their shopping at home. Now they're not doing their shopping at home. So it is a Catch-22," she said.
The Marine Highway System has had limited experience with its fast ferries. The Chenega just began regular service in August. And the Fairweather, which started carrying passengers in June 2004, was tied up for part of last winter, due to damage from a large wave and labor disputes.
Ferry General Manager John Falvey said the winter sailings are a test of equipment.
"It's as much about how would they do in the weather as it is about building ridership," he said. "I think that as time goes by you can build ridership."
He said both ships have been delayed by high seas at times. And the Chenega sucked a log into its engine intake, but did not sustain any significant damage.
The ridership and weather results will help officials decide the future of the fast-ferry fleet.
Transportation plans proposed by former Gov. Tony Knowles administration, and later the Gov. Frank Murkowski administration, called for two more catamarans. One would link Juneau and Petersburg, as the Fairweather does now. The other would connect Ketchikan and Wrangell to Petersburg, as the Chenega does now, except it would use a new South Mitkof Island terminal, linked to Petersburg by road.
But the latest take on the fast ferries' future is less, not more. About the same time the winter experiment began, the governor suggested the Chenega and Fairweather might have to be sold because of their high cost of operation.
The governor recently said he doubted the future of the fast ferries includes the experimental winter Southeast routes.
"We have every reason to believe that moving the Chenega up to Prince William Sound with the traffic out of Whittier in the summertime will work quite successfully," Murkowski said at a Capitol press conference. "But in the wintertime, it's a different story."
The governor said a decision will be made after the catamarans are tied up for maintenance and certification.
Falvey said the Chenega will be out of service Feb. 2-23 and the Fairweather will be tied up Jan. 30-Feb. 20. The ships will return to the experimental runs until May, when the Fairweather will return to northern Southeast service and the Chenega will return to Prince William Sound.
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