Columbia schedule in limbo

Fingers pointing over ferry delay

Posted: Friday, June 22, 2001

Tension is mounting between the state and a Ketchikan shipyard hired to fix the ferry Columbia, damaged in a fire last year.

Frustrated by what he called a series of missed deadlines by Alaska Ship and Drydock, the marine highway system's George Capacci revamped the July ferry schedule anticipating the ship will not be delivered July 2 as promised by the company. Delivery already is a month behind schedule.

"There's milestones they've missed," said Capacci, general manager. "I think it's only prudent to think there might be more."

However, a company spokesman insisted the shipyard would deliver the ferry by the July deadline and blamed the state for the delays.

"One-hundred percent of our efforts are going to complete the ship at the earliest possible date," said Doug Ward, director of shipyard development.

The shipyard was supposed to deliver the ferry May 26, but last month it asked for an extension to July 2, saying the state requested more work than was specified in the $10 million contract, which includes renovations unrelated to the fire.

Capacci agreed the state expanded the scope of the project, but said the extra work should not have taken the shipyard so long to complete.

A key issue is the ferry's switchboard, which was destroyed in the blaze. The switchboard is the central nervous system of the ship - the "brain" that controls the electrical system, said Capacci, noting that without it nothing else works. He wanted to put cleaning crews on the ferry while the renovation was in progress, to make the ship ready for passengers sooner. But without electricity, he can't do it.

"We had verbal assurances the electrical power would be back on board and the crew would move back on board the 18th of June. That didn't happen. Before that it was the 1st of June," Capacci said. "We've been telling them for 30 weeks that you're late and they've been in denial or they've not seen it."

However, Ward accounted for the delay by saying the state Department of Transportation requested more extensive testing of the switchboard than specified in the contract.

"This is a more rigorous testing procedure than was required ... It would simulate the loads on the switchboard that would occur during actual operation closer than what we can do pier-side with only the ship's generators working in a non-mode situation," said Ward, noting the electricity is not available to the ship during testing.

In response to the missed deadlines to restore power, Capacci assumed the shipyard would not deliver the vessel July 2 and changed next month's ferry schedule. If the shipyard does deliver it by July 2, the state would revert to the previous July schedule, he said.

Meanwhile, Capacci is worried the delay has hurt the ferry system's reputation in Alaska and the Lower 48. The Malaspina was diverted to the Bellingham-Skagway route to accommodate passengers with reservations on the Columbia. However, the smaller Malaspina cannot handle them all, and the state has turned travelers away.

"Those people we turn away are very upset. The general public's impression is the whole marine highway system is goofed up, and that's not the case at all," said Capacci, noting some ferry reservation agents were so weary of dealing with angry customers that they quit.

The state could charge the shipyard $86,740 for each day beyond the contract's May 26 deadline, he said. However, the money would go to the federal government, which funded the renovation, not to the state to compensate for revenue lost to cancellations, said Capacci. He was still calculating the total monetary loss, but put it in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ward said he is preparing documentation to substantiate his argument that the state caused the delay.

"We believe that documentation will justify the extended time period and either mitigate or eliminate the necessities for liquidated damages," Ward said.

The revised schedule is available online at www.state.ak.us./ferry, or travelers may call the reservations center at 1-800-642-0066 or 465-3941.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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