Letter by Sean C. McDermott
Anyone who thinks the Malaspina is a nonessential part of the Alaska Marine Highway System should think again.
The recent fire aboard the Columbia, and the resulting reshuffling of the other vessels, and even the temporary suspension of the Malaspina's day boat trips for her to make a special trip to Bellingham, all illustrate the fact that the Malaspina is in fact an essential part of both the current and future ferry plans. Not a vessel to simply serve Lynn Canal during the summer and sit around at a dock during the winter. The Malaspina has this time, as she has before, bailed out other ferries when they got in trouble. That is why it is essential that the state upgrade her to meet all existing and future safety standards. What if it were one of the vessels on the Prince Rupert run that had an accident that took her out of service? (The Malaspina may also need the upgrades to serve Bellingham now as well.)
Presently, the Matanuska is on the Bellingham run. That ship, although she meets the requirements (known as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS), doesn't meet the demand on the Bellingham run. A possible solution is to run the Malaspina to Bellingham every other week and on her normal schedule during the off-weeks. She would probably need a special exemption from the SOLAS requirements to do so, but I'm sure the Coast Guard would grant such permission if the state agreed to upgrade the Malaspina within a specified period of time, before December 2003, for example.
The state should be prepared for such problems as the Columbia fire or anything else that could go wrong with a ferry. I would like to see the ferry system do the following:
1. Apply to the Coast Guard for permission to operate the Malaspina from Bellingham every other week to accommodate passengers and vehicles who cannot be accommodated on the Matanuska.
2. Upgrade the Malaspina to meet existing and future SOLAS requirements as soon as possible. Ferry officials should start talking to the Legislature as soon as the session opens, and get cost estimates from shipyards now to present to the Legislature for funding.
3. Write two summer schedules, a regular schedule and a backup schedule so everyone knows what changes will take place if something happens to another ferry. Remember when the Malaspina made the Kennicott's first trips out of Bellingham while we were waiting for the Kennicott?
Sean C. McDermottJuneau