Transportation Commissioner Mike Barton announced Monday that Gov. Frank Murkowski has approved moving the Alaska Marine Highway System and about 40 Juneau jobs to Ketchikan.
The ferry system's administrative offices will move to the largely vacant Ketchikan Pulp Co. administration building near Ward Cove, a four-mile drive from the ferry system's maintenance yard.
Barton said the move could save the state up to $279,000 annually and provide a one-time savings of $562,000.
Last week, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly sent the state a proposal to move the ferry system as early as this summer. Barton said he did not know yet when the ferry system offices would move.
The borough's proposal leaves open the possibility of moving more state employees to the Ketchikan-owned facility, the commissioner said.
"That's not in my long-range plans, but I think as I understand the borough's offer it was for other agencies, not just more of DOT," Barton said.
AMHS move at a glance
New location: The largely vacant Ketchikan Pulp Co. administration building.
Cost of the move: $345,000 to $522,000.
Potential savings: * $562,000 over ten years in lease costs.
$240,000 annually from increased efficiency attributable to AMHS located near Ketchikan Shipyard.
$39,000 annually for employee transportation costs.
* Figures are from a report by Washington-based Pacific Marine Technical Services.
Ferry system employees were promised in December by Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Tom Briggs that the state would conduct a public and open review of the proposal before making a decision.
But AMHS employees and state and local officials say they weren't given detailed information about the proposed move until Monday, after the decision had been made. Ferry system employees and members of the Juneau legislative delegation contend that the decision and analysis was made in secret.
"I don't think it was secret," Commissioner Barton said at the Monday press conference. "We were having discussions with Ketchikan on what was possible with the lease and with the building. We were having discussions in terms of the desirability and the effects on operations, and that sort of thing - internally."
AMHS administrative manager Lynn Escola said she thinks the governor is tossing a political bone to his supporters in Ketchikan.
"At the same time it allows him to take something away from Juneau - the city that he loves to hate," she said.
Murkowski has contended the move is not based on politics but that it would save the state money and increase efficiency in the ferry system.
Barton said Deputy Commissioner Briggs, formerly of Ketchikan, is the only AMHS employee at this time that will not be required to make the move.
Just before the announcement Barton passed out copies of a study by Washington-based consulting firm Pacific Marine Technical Services saying the move would save the state about $562,000 over a 10-year period in rental costs.
The report also said the state could save up to $240,000 per year by having administrative offices near the Ketchikan Shipyard, where state ferries are laid up during the winter for maintenance and overhaul.
"This amount is not being advanced as an absolute, but rather an opportunity for savings," the report noted.
The report also states that the marine highway system would save approximately $39,000 per year in travel costs.
"Basing AMHS fleet maintenance and engineering personnel in Ketchikan, instead of Juneau, will eliminate this group's travel costs to Ketchikan for annual lay-up and overhaul activities that take place there," the study said.
Barton said he will establish a team within DOT in the coming weeks to work out the logistics of the move.
Many AMHS employees, however, have said they will quit before moving to Ketchikan.
Escola, following the Monday meeting, said she wouldn't say whether she would stay or go.
"I'm not going to answer that because I don't wish to give the administration any ammunition to distort one way or another," she said.
AMHS General Manager George Capacci said employees met with Barton prior to the press conference with questions about moving costs, job opportunities for spouses and which positions, if any, would stay.
"I'm just coming to grips with those questions," Capacci said.
He said replacing employees might be difficult.
It took a six-month national search to find a qualified assistant port captain recently, Capacci said.
He said only three members of the senior management staff within the ferry system were hired in-state.
"It would be an awful long time to fill those positions," he said.
At the Monday meeting with staff members, Capacci said Barton also was questioned on the safety of the Ketchikan building. It is more than 50 years old and many are wondering about the presence of asbestos.
Barton said the facility was inspected last month by DOT facilities manager Steve Flodin.
"I'm not aware of any asbestos problems being identified, but that was raised at an employee meeting this morning and I'm certainly going to check it out," Barton said.
He noted that the up-front costs of the move would require approval of the Legislature.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.