Fast ferries running through choppy water at state Capitol

Legislature 2001

Posted: Wednesday, March 21, 2001

State transportation officials face skepticism in the House about whether their fast ferry concept for Southeast is being phased in properly.

Three members of the House Transportation Committee, including Chairman Vic Kohring, have raised questions about whether the public and local officials were given enough notice about changes in the plan.

Meanwhile, a bid opening for the first fast ferry, a Sitka-Juneau dayboat scheduled for operation in 2003, was postponed from today until April 6.

Bob Doll, Southeast regional director for the Department of Transportation, said a few more questions are being posed to the two finalists in an attempt to avoid change orders after the contract is awarded. The state has estimated the ferry will cost $38.5 million to design and build. The contract is to carry an option for the construction of two more vessels.

The state already has tapped federal funds to pay for the Sitka-Juneau dayboat and the second fast ferry, which will be deployed in Prince William Sound. Administration officials are seeking the Legislature's permission this session to use an unconventional financing mechanism, based on future federal highway funds, to build two more fast ferries for Southeast. Those would link Ketchikan with South Mitkof Island and Juneau with Petersburg.

Ultimately, the plan is for up to eight new ferries in Southeast, including five fast ferries. As they are phased in, aging mainliners will be retired, redeployed or put on a lighter schedule. Labor costs would drop sharply through the reliance on dayboat operations to move traffic within Southeast.

But even Southeast legislators are nervous.

"These plans have been changing a lot, and that's frustrating," Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican, said during a committee meeting Tuesday.

Rep. Albert Kookesh, an Angoon Democrat, said after watching the mainliner LeConte struggle through Chatham Strait on Monday he questions whether the smaller fast ferries are up to the job of negotiating strong currents.

Chairman Kohring, a Wasilla Republican, wrote to Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Joseph Perkins with concerns about changes in the plan, including the elimination of a hub at Angoon.

"This information or any rationale for the decision was not passed on to community leaders-officials or to area legislators," Kohring wrote.

He also noted that the recent draft of the Southeast plan de-emphasized the Inter-Island Ferry Authority, a port authority established by six small towns in the southern Panhandle, which is setting up an independent ferry system there.

Perkins responded that changes to the plan were communicated through official briefings, public hearings, newsletters, Internet postings and mail in the fall of 2000.

"The development of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan involved one of the broadest-based and most comprehensive public participation efforts undertaken by the DOT/PF," he said.

As for the Inter-Island Ferry Authority, Doll said there is strong state support for its Hollis-Ketchikan shuttle. But the proposed link from Coffman Cove to Wrangell and South Mitkof is "a much more speculative endeavor" that wouldn't offset traffic demands upon the Alaska Marine Highway System, he said. "If it fails and takes down the Hollis-Ketchikan service, it will have done no one any good."

Wilson, echoing a concern of civic and government leaders in the Southeast Conference, asked Doll why the administration wants to commit to more fast ferries before seeing how the first one operates. Doll said that although the vessels are new to the United States, the design has a proven track record "from Norway to Tasmania."

Doll said a study of transportation needs in the Upper Lynn Canal will be done by September, which could lead to another change in the Southeast plan. A fast ferry from Juneau to Haines and Skagway is currently fifth on the state's implementation schedule. But the former mainliner Malaspina will continue dayboat operations along that route in the summers, Doll said.

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