ANCHORAGE — Workers constructing the long-awaited Susitna, the ferry that will eventually taxi passengers and cars across Cook Inlet, passed a milestone recently, when the boat floated on water for the first time.
Despite that, uncertainty remains as to where and when the boat will land in Anchorage. And the issue likely won’t be settled anytime soon, said Stuart Greydanus, director of operations and facilities security officer with the Port of Anchorage.
“It’s been talked about basically twice,” Greydanus said, referring to a new prospect for a temporary landing while a permanent one is hashed out. “I would say we’re not close at all right now.”
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough still has its eye on a spot in Ship Creek as the ferry’s permanent docking location, said Marc Van Dongen, director of Port MacKenzie in the Mat-Su Borough.
However, as is, the Ship Creek spot can’t properly facilitate the ferry, and officials on both sides of the Inlet are looking for places the ferry might dock while negotiations continue regarding safety concerns raised by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard rejected a permit the borough submitted in 2009 to build a dock in Ship Creek because the spot was too close to routes utilized by boats coming out of nearby Cook Inlet Tug and Barge Co., raising the risk of a collision.
The most likely interim landing in Anchorage would be a floating dock at the Port of Anchorage used by the Coast Guard and the municipal fire department, Greydanus said.
The borough would have to construct a replacement dock there that would be capable of serving its existing purpose while also facilitating the ferry. The replacement would function year-round, where the current one can only be used in the summer. The replacement dock has already been designed, but necessary permitting has not been completed.
The replacement dock could be installed during the summer of 2011 at the earliest, Van Dongen said.
Though there is no concrete cost estimate for the replacement dock, Van Dongen anticipates a range of $5 million to $6 million.
Officials also have considered docking the ferry at the Port of Anchorage’s main terminal, but Van Dongen’s personal favorite solution is to lend the ferry to the Alaska Marine Highway System while the Anchorage landing is deliberated.
The ferry is scheduled for completion in September, at which point Ketchikan-based Alaska Ship and Drydock, the firm building the vessel, will deliver the craft to the borough.
Borough Manager John Duffy said he expects the ferry to begin full service in April, allowing the craft to take advantage of the more lucrative summer season.
When it does begin full service, the ferry will travel to Tyonek, Kenai, Point Possession, Port MacKenzie and Anchorage.
The idea of ferry service between the Mat-Su Borough and Anchorage has been bandied about since former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom and former Mat-Su Borough Manager Mike Scott discussed the prospect as far back as 1999.
Though passengers will pay a fare to ride the craft, the financial model for sustaining the ferry will require car service, Duffy said. And even with those funding sources, Van Dongen believes a subsidy may still be required to keep the ferry afloat. He said ferries in other states often see 60 percent of their operations and maintenance costs subsidized by the state.
The Navy is paying the $70 million cost of the craft’s construction, but the borough will still foot the bill for operations and maintenance for 20 years. The cost of engineering, designing and outfitting the craft is $8 million, 13 percent of which the borough is paying, with the rest coming from the Federal Transit Authority.
The Navy is interested in the project because it wants to test the new technologies being installed on the boat, and the borough agreed to provide the Navy with data collected as the ferry operates in exchange for the funding to construct it.
Between now and September, the craft will be fitted with a propulsion system and several other features, said Doug Ward, director of shipyard development for Alaska Ship and Drydock. Software needed to control the ferry from the bridge will be installed, along with the ferry’s hydraulics.
The finished product will be a state-of-the-art vessel, with several experimental features under its belt. The ferry will function as an icebreaker, slipping pieces of its hull beneath sea ice and lifting it into the air to break through. The ferry will also be capable of transforming from a fast-moving deepwater vessel into a landing craft with a shallower draft.
The ship is set to be christened June 11. “We’ll have a lot of champagne,” Ward said.