Fast ferry plan worries state advisers

Proposal sends Chenega, Fairweather south for the winter

Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2005

While the state is finalizing a concept to reroute the Alaska Marine Highway System's fast ferries, an advisory board worries that the plan will not be consistent or affordable.

Marine Highway chief Robin Taylor has proposed sending the state's two fast ferries, the Chenega and Fairweather, to serve communities south of Juneau this winter. New shuttles docking at the north end of Juneau's road system could serve Haines and Skagway later, he proposes.

Members of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, meeting Wednesday, said the plan has no set schedule or cost analysis yet, which would be needed to get funding from Alaska legislators and the confidence of the public.

The new fast ferry Chenega, which was intended to serve in Prince William Sound but has no crew yet, would shuttle between Petersburg and Ketchikan three days a week, under Taylor's plan. The Fairweather, currently serving Juneau, Sitka and Lynn Canal, would sail between Juneau and Petersburg three to four days a week and in Lynn Canal the rest of week.

"The goal of the system is to operate day boats whenever we can," Taylor said.

Fast ferry proposal

For the 2005-06 fall/winter seasons for southeast alaska

fairweather would:

• Operate from juneau to lynn canal three days a week.

• Operate from juneau to sitka one day a week.

• Operate from juneau to petersburg three days a week.

chenega would:

• Operate between ketchikan and petersburg three days a week.

mainline service:

• Remains the same.

Some members of the board argued that if the Department of Transportation is open to rearranging the schedule, then it should consider a bare-bones plan that it can afford and commit to it in the long term, then add ferries and routes as money comes in.

"Simpler is better," said board member David Kensinger.

Kensinger said he wasn't convinced that funding would be available for all aspects of the state's plan.

Advisory board Chairman J.C. Conley said the system also needs to plan to have boats available to replace broken ones while repairs are made.

Alaska legislators at the meeting said getting money for the ferry system is a hard sell when state officials cannot show lawmakers a long-term plan.

"You have to show that you are willing to stick to a schedule," said Juneau Democrat Sen. Kim Elton.

Conley said it's difficult to plan far in advance when the amount of funding legislators approve for the ferry changes every year.

The governor has an option to buy two more fast ferries in March. The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities plans to observe whether the Chenega and Fairweather routes are successful with ridership as well as navigating through the Clarence Strait and Stephens Passage winter waters.

In recent weeks, Taylor suggested serving Haines with a day boat from Juneau and running a daily shuttle between Haines and Skagway.

Taylor also said the state was considering buying two more boats and building a dock at Cascade Point, north of Juneau near Berners Bay, so mainliners could save time by turning south at Auke Bay.

Some of these ideas will not be possible for several years, Taylor said.

At the meeting, residents and city leaders from northern Lynn Canal and Prince William Sound gave their opinions and recommendations on the plan.

Prince William Sound residents were opposed to the idea of losing their fast ferry; Valdez interim City Manager Nancy Peterson said she had been misled by the department.

"We're not just a summer tourist destination," said Peterson. She said Valdez is eager to attract visitors during other times of the year.

Taylor said negotiations between the Department of Administration and ferry unions have not reached an agreement. In the meantime, the mainline ship Aurora is serving the route at slower speeds.

A dock in Cordova was retrofitted three weeks ago for the Chenega, but does not comfortably fit the Aurora, hindering vans and school buses trying to unload, Cordova Mayor Timothy Joyce said.

Other speakers said they were tired of reading news on a regular basis about ships and routes changing.

"I've learned to eat a handful of Tylenol before I call about the schedule," said a Sitka resident who phoned in his comments.

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