My turn: The state didn't pull a fast one on ferries

Ferry system head takes exception to Empire editorial

Posted: Thursday, March 16, 2006

Once again, we in the Murkowski administration must take exception to misinformed editorial comment from the Juneau Empire. In its March 5 edition, the Empire's "Pulling a fast one" editorial was based upon presumptions about the uses to which we have put the fast vehicle ferries, which create and perpetuate erroneous conclusions for your readers.

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The Empire asserted, "everyone expected this from a governor bent on demonstrating that new roads are the only way forward for Southeast Alaska." Gov. Frank Murkowski does believe in roads as well as the ferry system. His vision is to build roads where they can economically be built and efficiently operated. Obviously, in an archipelago of islands, ferry connections will have to be maintained and expanded, but his goal is to reduce our dependence on expensive mainline ferries to the greatest extent possible.

Perhaps, if the editorial writers would refer to the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, they would get a clear picture of where the state is headed with roads and ferries and could then put into context the Ketchikan-Petersburg-Juneau express "experiment." You might also bear in mind that the decision to go to fast ferries was made by the Knowles administration with inadequate research on the actual performance of these ships in Alaska waters.

The impression is that we consider the experiment a failure because it didn't go long enough, had low ridership and generated little revenue. Those are some of the factors involved in the decision not to continue the experiment, but by no means all.

The fast ferries are expensive to operate, burning nearly 600 gallons per hour, and designed to run high-density routes. Outside of May to September, we don't have the passenger volume to offset the high cost of operating the vessels. Something else overlooked in your editorial: the Chenega running in Prince William Sound in the winter is impractical. The Aurora, with a passenger capacity of 300, has run throughout the winter in Prince William Sound, with an average weekly total of 250 passengers, or about 4 percent of its weekly capacity.

Our objective in running the winter schedule was to determine the ferries' capability to operate in the winter sea state, primarily in Stephen's Passage and Clarence Strait.

What we found out about the sea state was clear and convincing. While fast ferries were supposed to have been designed to operate in seas up to 13 feet, the Coast Guard has set a limit on our fast ferries at 10 feet. Actual experience shows us that our riders get uncomfortable (as in nauseated) starting at about 6-foot seas. In fact, the Chenega, currently running on the Fairweather route to Lynn Canal and Sitka, has had to cancel six sailings in the last two weeks, due to high winds and waves.

Heavy seas also have inflicted structural damage to the all-aluminum hulls of the two fast ferries. This is partly because the "wet deck," which was raised 3 feet above its original design, should have been raised another 3 feet to deal with Southeast Alaska sea states. We believe the problem of ingesting an inordinate number of logs (about every other trip for the Chenega) would eventually damage or destroy parts of the drive train.

The conclusion was self-evident. We should not run the fast ferries on those routes in the winter.

We now know where we don't want to run fast ferries in the wintertime. Our plan at this time is to tie them up after the high-volume summer season, unless we can identify a logical route that will provide a level of traffic sufficient to justify running them.

The problem with fast ferries is not with the person at "the helm" who has pulled a "fast one," as you suggest in your editorial. The problem is to integrate these vessels into the Alaska Marine Highway System in the most cost-effective way possible. And that may mean laying them up in the winter if they are not cost effective.

• Robin Taylor is the deputy commissioner and director of marine transportation for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

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