The Alaska Department of Transportation calls its plan to reroute two fast ferries from north Lynn Canal to destinations south of Juneau an "experiment."
It's primarily a weather experiment, said Robin Taylor, state commissioner of marine transportation. The governor wants to know if fast vehicles can run through wavy winter waters in Clarence Strait and Stevens Passage at high speeds.
Officials don't know exactly the demand for fast ferries in Petersburg and Ketchikan, but are guessing that the service will be an attractive opportunity for sports teams and shoppers in those cities if the day-boat schedule takes effect.
The department wants to send the Chenega, which serves Southcentral Alaskans, and the Fairweather, which runs to Haines, Skagway and Sitka from Juneau, to a Juneau-Petersburg-Ketchikan connection this fall and through the winter.
In 2003, the latest available numbers, the Lynn Canal route was more popular in winter than trips from Juneau to Petersburg and Ketchikan.
Haines City Manager Robert Venables is not outraged at the loss of the fast-ferry route because the DOT plans to replace it with a day boat going back and forth to Juneau and another ship making daily trips between Haines and Skagway.
But none of this is certain.
"There's an opportunity to actually improve the ferry system here," Venables said.
But his greatest fear is the plan crumbling under negotiations with ferry management and labor.
"There is an endless number of opportunities for the Department of Administration and Labor Relations to bungle this deal," said Joe Geldhof, a Juneau-based attorney for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association union.
In the past when new routes were proposed, the department has drafted subcontracts that were not acceptable to workers.
Ketchikan Mayor Bob Weinstein said the winter may not be long enough to prove to the department that the shuttle route to Petersburg and back will work.
"For this to truly work, it would be a good idea to do it for the entire calendar year," Weinstein said.
Many summer riders through Ketchikan and Petersburg are tourists. But winter travelers are largely limited to locals, who also fly to destinations.
Taylor said that with the new schedule high school sports teams can board the fast ferry in Juneau on a Friday morning, play on the weekend and return in time for dinner Sunday night.
"That's the ridership we have been turning our backs on for 20 years," Taylor said.
When former Gov. Tony Knowles agreed to purchase Alaska's first two fast ferries from Connecticut-based shipbuilder Derecktor, the contract also allowed the state to buy two more at the same price of $40 million each.
The offer ends in March, but Taylor said Derecktor may extend the window if no decision is made.
If the state does purchase the ships, they will sail through the Southeast Alaska trial routes, Taylor said. The Chenega would return to Southcentral Alaska and the Fairweather may serve a Juneau-Sitka connection.
"The question should be: Is this the right time to be experimenting?" Geldhof said.
A new harbor 26 miles south of Petersburg on Mitkof Island is being built with a road connection so ferries can save about 20 nautical miles of travel from the south.
When the harbor is finished in spring, passengers would have to find motor transportation into Petersburg from the dock, a point that critics don't like.
Taylor said a shuttle ferry sailing between Ketchikan and Metlakatla is a model for other proposed shuttle routes.
"It actually turned a profit last year," Taylor said.
Though a town of about 700 people, Metlakatla residents are getting on board to go to Ketchikan in the afternoon for dentist trips or shopping at Wal-Mart. Ketchikan riders are taking advantage of tourism in Metlakatla, Taylor said.
The ferry system is heavily subsidized by government funding because many routes do not have enough passengers.
The Lynn Canal route is an exception, with the route being Southeast Alaska's quickest connection through Canada to the state's Interior via road.
Andrew Petty can be reached at email@example.com.
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