SE leaders criticize ferry test

Marine highway supporters allege state designed schedule to fail

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2006

Like a dose of bad medicine, the state's plan to tie up its two fast ferries next winter is sticking in the throats of many Southeast Alaskans.

Some Panhandle town leaders and legislators accuse the governor's appointees - particularly Robin Taylor, who supervises the Alaska Marine Highway System - of designing the fast ferries' 2005-2006 winter experimental runs to fail.

Taylor says the winter experimental runs - connecting Juneau to Petersburg, and Ketchikan to Petersburg and Wrangell - failed on the basis of low ridership and weather-related problems. The state will tie up the two ferries, the Chenega and the Fairweather, or find some other use for them next winter, Taylor said.

When queried this week about how he would have defined a successful winter experiment, Taylor said he didn't have specific numerical targets for the ferries.

"I didn't have any preconceived notion," he said.

But there is plenty of historical fodder for finger-pointing and conspiracy theories about the fast ferry route decisions.

"They set it up to fail," says Tim Bourcy, the Skagway mayor.

Rep. Bill Thomas, a Haines Republican, has made similar accusations over the last two weeks from his Juneau legislative office.

Thomas drafted a resolution - now under review by the Legislature's new Coastal Caucus - to maintain year-round ferry service in Lynn Canal and Prince William Sound. Taylor will be asked to respond to the resolution at an upcoming Transportation Committee meeting, Thomas said Wednesday.

Before last year, when Gov. Frank Murkowski made him a deputy commissioner over the ferry system, Taylor was a vocal skeptic of the fast ferries.

In 2002, Taylor attempted to pull roughly $20 million intended to help fund the construction of the Chenega, while he was serving in the Legislature as a Wrangell Republican.

Alaska's fast ferry fleet was designed by its architects as a method to connect coastal road ends with day boats traveling short distances.

Instead, some in Southeast Alaska have been using the fast ferries as an excuse to fight off new roads shortening the distance between cities, Taylor said Tuesday.

Taylor's critics say it is ridiculous for state officials to tie up the fast ferries when they are so popular. Also, the major road proposed for Lynn Canal - the 50-mile Juneau Access road - hasn't been built yet.

Critics point out that the Fairweather, serving both Lynn Canal and Sitka, has some of the lowest operating costs and highest ridership within the state's aging fleet of ferries.

In 2004, for example, the mainliner Malaspina carried 39,477 people, the highest number of passengers that year. The mainliner Matanuska carried 38,470 and the Fairweather carried 38,149. Unlike the two mainliners, which traveled regularly to the Panhandle from Bellingham, Wash., and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, respectively, the Fairweather operated for only six months in 2004.

In addition, in the fiscal year ending last June 30, the Malaspina cost $11.4 million to operate, the Matanuska cost $11.2 million to operate, and the Fairweather cost $5.6 million, according to the state's records.

"Why is the Fairweather singled out, when she is so heartily endorsed by the public and costs relatively little to operate?" said Bob Doll, former state ferry chief under the Knowles administration and now a Juneau Assembly member.

Taylor says the fast ferries are gas guzzlers, compared to conventional ferries that operate around the clock. Though the high-speed vessels are consuming less fuel per day than predicted, as a result of recent high prices, their fuel cost has averaged about $10,294 per day.

Taylor said other governments - including British Columbia and Washington state - decided to sell their fast ferries when they operated at much lower deficits than the Fairweather or Chenega.

Taylor also pointed out that the marine route in Lynn Canal is lucrative no matter which boat runs it. On the other hand, conventional ferries must travel to more isolated villages to maintain regional service.

"These numbers are being distorted to the favor of that boat (the Fairweather)," Taylor complained.

The state has good evidence that the two fast ferries can run successfully in the summer, just not in the winter, Taylor said.

Not so fast, according to the state's own Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

The board opposed the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' decision to tie up the ferries.

After hearing from Taylor about the state's decision on Feb. 15, the board voted in favor of maintaining year-round fast ferry runs in Lynn Canal, and initiating year-round service in Prince William Sound as well.

Some board members also say that the 2005-2006 experimental runs should have been planned to make better use of the fast ferries.

"It sure wasn't much of an experiment," said Robert Venables, Haines Borough manager, who said he was not speaking on behalf of the board but rather as a Haines official.

When the state makes major schedule revisions mid-way through the year, as it did with the winter experimental runs, it harms local ridership and tourism planning, Venables said.

Also, too many state vessels - conventional and fast ferries - clogged the northern Panhandle ports in the winter, reducing the potential income and number of riders per boat, Venables said.

Thomas said he has seen up to three ferries travel through Lynn Canal in one day.

"Give me a break," he said.

Ketchikan resident and Marine Advisory Board member J.C. Conley observed a similar issue with "dual ridership" in Ketchikan.

There, the Chenega fast ferry had to compete against the Columbia mainliner for riders, Conley said. Ketchikan residents enjoy riding the Columbia because they can get a state room and socialize with each other for the long ride, he said.

"If it was up to me, I don't know if I would have structured (the schedules) that way," Conley said.

Conley agrees with Taylor that the state gleaned important information from the winter experiment, but he said the state should continue winter runs next year instead of tying up the boats prematurely.

The Chenega didn't get a chance to run as originally planned in Prince William Sound during the winter, for example. That opportunity should be granted, Conley said.

Also, the state needs to run a southern Panhandle test that is fair, according to Doll. He said the Chenega was routed through Wrangell Narrows, when it would be more efficient to run the vessel from a new dock on the southern end of Mitkof Island. That dock is still under construction, and it remains to be seen if it can accommodate a fast ferry, Doll added.

"I don't mind the criticism," Taylor said Tuesday.

But, Taylor said, "Not one of these critics has told me where I could put (the vessels) where we could make money" in the winter.

Most of the fast ferries serving U.S. cities also face a problem of low ridership in the winter, Taylor said. Some East Coast communities send their fast ferries south for lease to Florida-based cruise operations.

"I don't know how in Alaska you could do something like that," Taylor said.

Doll said the state officials are too focused on the cost, rather than the value, of the fast ferries.

The Chenega, in particular, didn't get a chance to prove its worth this winter in the southern Panhandle, Doll said.

The Chenega, which had the worse ridership of the two vessels, did get more passengers over time on its experimental runs to Petersburg, Ketchikan and Wrangell.

On the other hand, the Chenega ingested 14 logs and 5 out of 29 trips were canceled due to weather or sea conditions, from Nov. 3 to Jan. 31.

The Fairweather fared better, ingesting 6 logs and experiencing just two weather-related cancellations from Jan. 1, 2005, to Jan. 31, 2006.

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