The state of Alaska will remove two fast ferries now serving Lynn Canal and Prince William Sound and divert them to an experimental Juneau-Petersburg-Ketchikan connection this fall and winter, the state's top marine transportation official said Thursday.
In addition, the mainliners Columbia and Taku will turn south in Juneau, requiring northbound travelers to change boats to reach mainland roads. The two ferries will travel north from Bellingham and Prince Rupert, respectively.
The Kennicott will operate every other week between Ketchikan and Prince William Sound.
"This would initiate an absolutely regular schedule," said Robin Taylor, state commissioner for marine transportation.
The changes - which came as a surprise to Southeast Alaska community leaders on Thursday - are effective for the season running from late September or early October until spring.
The decision will dislocate some state employees but put more boats in service at one time, Taylor said.
Petersburg Mayor Ted Smith was pleasantly surprised by the decision, quietly announced Thursday on the ferry system's Web site.
The Chenega fast ferry, which just this month arrived in Alaska for its first summer in Cordova, Whittier and Valdez, will be assigned to a daily round trip between Ketchikan and Petersburg.
The Fairweather would be redirected to a daily round trip between Juneau and Petersburg.
Smith said it is "good news" for his town, though he isn't sure that the boats could be filled on a daily basis. "It will be a real interesting experiment," he said.
Skagway Mayor Tim Bourcy was horrified by the decision to remove the Fairweather fast ferry from Lynn Canal and replace it with a day boat like the LeConte or Malaspina.
To bolster its goal of building a $281 million east Lynn Canal road, the state has designed a ferry experiment that will fail economically, Bourcy said. "The Fairweather makes sense in Lynn Canal in the wintertime. The Malaspina is big. You are never going to fill it," he said.
The Lynn Canal route from Juneau north shoulders about 30 percent of the system's annual ridership.
"The whole question of high-speed ferries and their economic applications is still to be decided," Taylor said. The state's reason for the experiment is to help the governor decide whether to buy two additional fast ferries for future use in Southeast Alaska, he said.
The winter trial will allow the state to learn the vessels' economic suitability in the Juneau-Petersburg-Ketchikan corridor, he said.
"That's the $100 million dollar question," Taylor said, referring to the combined cost of two new fast ferries plus shore-side modifications.
"All of our research shows that the biggest movement is between Juneau and Ketchikan," Taylor said.
Taylor said that if the state does buy more fast ferries, the Fairweather would likely be assigned to travel between Juneau and Sitka.
"We have put every scenario onto the wall - at least all we could think of," Taylor said.
But some critics charged the state with dropping a bomb on Southeast Alaska communities without vetting it through union discussions or public discussion at the state-appointed Marine Transportation Advisory Board.
State transportation officials announced the changes to unions and the advisory board less than a week ago, though the topic did not get public airing at the board's Juneau meeting Thursday.
Taylor said some of the elements of the state's decision were based on previous recommendations from the advisory board.
The state announced its decision to the public by appending a press release to the "changes and specials" section of the Alaska Marine Highway System Web site.
"Clearly, this did not get vetted through the normal public process," said Joe Geldhof, a Juneau-based attorney for the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association union.
Geldhof said the state's decision will cause major dislocations of employment for ferry workers. "It doesn't just impact the people on the ships. It impacts families and communities all over Alaska," he said.
"There are aspects of this that might be good. But the devil is in the details," he said.
Taylor acknowledged that the change will move workers around. "Some of these decisions are going to be difficult," he said.
Former ferry system chief Bob Doll of Juneau said he is skeptical of the state's decision to turn the mainliners from Bellingham and Prince Rupert back south in Juneau.
"Travelers generally don't like disruptions in their journey," he said, though he added that the state could reduce disruption by having a second boat waiting at the dock.
Taylor said the governor will likely decide whether to purchase additional fast ferries next spring, at the conclusion of the experimental ferry season.
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