Fast ferry passes test run

Posted: Monday, April 24, 2000

A fast ferry chartered by the state went through Peril Strait's Sergius Narrows last week without a problem.

It went so well that the captain of the catamaran went back and fourth through the waterway's strong tidal currents a half-dozen more times, said Bob Doll, Southeast area director for the Department of Transportation.

The state hired to ferry to test the viability of one-day runs from Juneau to Sitka. The narrows are about 25 miles northwest of Sitka.

The last time such a test was made a shorter, 73-foot-long catamaran had trouble keeping pointed in the right direction as the tidal pull pushed it around.

But the 132-foot Klondike Express handled 6.9-knot tidal currents with ease, Doll said. Smaller, mono-hull state ferries need to wait for easier tidal conditions to run the narrows, he said.

``We felt we proved our point,'' Doll said. ``Our conclusion is that we won't have any difficulty keeping a consistent schedule.''

Such a schedule is a key to using day trips by a fast ferry to improve access for Sitka, he said. The ferry the state's considering is 210 feet, longer than the test catamaran. And rather than just carrying passengers, it would be designed to handle 35 vehicles and 250 people at more than 30 knots.

One of those on board Thursday's Juneau-Sitka run was Jan Wrentmore, owner of Skagway's Red Onion Saloon, who has been lobbying the Legislature for a fast ferry for Lynn Canal routes.

``I thought it was great,'' Wrentmore said of the trip. ``It was very exciting. It was more like flying than sailing.

``We were moving through pretty choppy seas. There was some turbulence, but it was like what you'd have on a bumpy airplane ride. It was very encouraging.''

She said she's seen numbers that show fast ferries could bring down the state's subsidy for the ferry system to nearly half of its current level within eight years.

Those numbers are based on a lot of factors, and are pretty solid, said Doll.

Gov. Tony Knowles has proposed a bond package to pay for a variety of transportation projects in Alaska, including two more ferries, one of them in Lynn Canal. However, that plan rates dead on the Legislature's agenda for this session.

The first fast ferry, for the Sitka run, is also in trouble.

Sen. John Torgerson, a Kasilof Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said there's little time for him to put money back into the budget for the 2001 fiscal year for the Sitka ferry. He yanked the funding earlier this session because he wanted more information from DOT.

``They have no idea what that (ferry) costs,'' Torgerson said. ``They don't know what they're paying.''

Doll said Torgerson has had the information for two months, but only recently got it in the form he apparently wanted.

Some $31 million has been set aside for the ferry, based on a DOT estimate of its cost from 18 months ago. But a designer, doing a more thorough job, brought in an estimate about $7 million higher.

Torgerson yanked the extra cash, which DOT asked for in a supplemental budget request.

Doll said the extra money is key. Eight partnerships have qualified to respond to the state's request for proposals on designing and building the Sitka ferry, he said. Those requests will be sent out in about a month, he said, and it would be nice to have the money by then.

``The funding is the principal issue at the moment,'' Doll said.

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