Fast-ferry delays frustrate many

Chenega tied up in Auke Bay, waiting for a crew to be trained

Posted: Friday, July 01, 2005

Cordova Mayor Timothy Joyce distinctly remembers a state transportation plan calling for year-round fast ferry service in Prince William Sound. But the Southcentral Alaska region will be lucky to get their ship for a few weeks at the end of this summer, if at all.

"The general sentiment here is that we pretty much feel we have been betrayed," Joyce said.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' new plan, conceived a few weeks ago, sends the new ferry Chenega to serve Prince William Sound in the summer and then be a shuttle route between Petersburg and Ketchikan in the fall and winter.

Now the Chenega is docked in Auke Bay, waiting for a crew to man the route between Cordova and Valdez. State marine transportation chief Robin Taylor said it would take five to six weeks to train a crew to run that route.

With summer half over, the Department of Transportation still wants to send the ship north, though it would have to return to Juneau in September for preparations of the fall-winter route, which begins in October, department spokesman John Manly said.

Three ferry unions - Inland Boatmen's Union, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association and the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots - and the Department of Administration's Division of Labor Relations have been at odds over a supplemental contract since negotiations began in the spring.

The division's negotiator, Art Chance, said the holdup is over wages and hours. Joe Geldhof, a Juneau-based lawyer representing MEBA, said workers want a per-diem for living in Cordova for a few months out of the year.

Geldhof said the state had known about this labor deal since October 2003, but started negotiations in April and then let a few months pass until approaching the table again this week.

"Robin Taylor is trying to do his job. The governor wants to get this thing going," Geldhof said. "The negotiations are hamstrung by the Division of Labor Relations."

Last July, ferry unions signed a collective bargaining agreement, also known as the master agreement, which applies to any changes in routes and ships.

But the fast ferries are too different from the rest of the fleet running on 24-hour schedules, Chance said.

"The fast ferries are very expensive vessels to operate," he said. The challenge is to modify the contracts according to the fast ferry's needs; contracts used for the 24-hour boats would not work, he said.

Chance did not know when the negotiations will finish.

"It could be today, tomorrow or sometime in the future," Chance said.

Geldhof said workers with families in Juneau or Ketchikan are reluctant to sign up for jobs that would require living in Cordova for several months of the year, where housing and other expenses are not cheap.

The Fairweather, the fast ferry now serving Lynn Canal, has two crews that work one full week and then take a break for the next week. Plans for the Chenega call for one crew that would work four days a week.

Meanwhile in Cordova, until the Chenega arrives, the traditional ferry Aurora has been serving the route, but Joyce said it's no replacement. The Aurora departs at 4:30 a.m. and returns at 12:30 a.m., a time when tourists cannot rent cars or book hotels. The Chenega would depart at 8 a.m. and return at 6 p.m., Joyce said.

Cordova's dock was modified to fit the Chenega, but now doesn't fit other ferries. The Aurora must unload at a different spot where school buses and vans cannot get off, Joyce said.

Taylor said the Chenega will be instrumental this fall and winter for school sports teams that want to make weekend trips throughout Southeast Alaska.

Joyce said Prince William Sound also has sports teams. On slow ferry schedules, students arrive at Valdez at 3 a.m. and then make another nine-hour journey by bus to Fairbanks.

"We anticipated having the use of fast ferry service," he said.

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