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Plans to run a new state-operated fast ferry between Juneau and Sitka ran aground this week when the state Department of Transportation announced it might use the ship to service Lynn Canal in the summer.
The state also told Sitka residents on Tuesday it may decide to home port the new fast ferry Fairweather in Juneau instead of Sitka.
The Sitka Sentinel reported that DOT Deputy Commissioner Tom Briggs told Sitkans at a Tuesday meeting that the state would discontinue mainline and nearby village ferry service if the fast ferry is home-ported in Sitka.
The Fairweather was scheduled to begin service between Juneau and Sitka in May 2004. The ferry was to provide daily service between the two communities in the summer and four days a week in the winter.
Plans to build a dock in Sitka to accommodate the fast ferry still are in the works, but the facility being constructed is half the size of a full-service fast-ferry facility.
Sitka was given until Oct. 1 to present arguments to DOT for home-porting the ferry there instead of Juneau, and for running the ferry between the two communities instead of up Lynn Canal.
"Servicing a city like Sitka makes good economic sense," said Sitka Mayor Fred Reeder. "It creates jobs and it's good for the ferry system. If you take a smaller community ... and give them three times the service level (that Sitka gets), does that make any sense?"
Reeder also argued that eliminating mainline ferry service from the vessels Taku, Kennicott, Malaspina, Columbia and Matanuska would cause those who live in nearby small communities to go elsewhere for medical service, causing a loss of jobs in Sitka.
DOT's Southeast Region Administrative Manager, Gary Cuscia, said home-porting the Fairweather in Juneau and running the ferry up Lynn Canal in the summer would save DOT about $2.7 million a year.
"It costs a lot less money to run the fast ferry because it requires a smaller crew, and it runs 12-hour days instead of a 24-hour day," he said.
Cuscia added that dock improvements to accommodate the fast ferry would cost about $12.6 million to home port the ferry in Sitka, compared to $11.2 million in Juneau.
"The rationale behind the Juneau home port issue is that it would allow the Marine Highway System to lay up the Taku (the state ferry that now serves Lynn Canal) and run the Fairweather in her place," Cuscia said. "Under that scenario the Fairweather would capture the Taku's revenue at a fraction of the cost."
But Reeder said the data used to determine those numbers are flawed, adding that Sitka may hire a consultant to reevaluate the state's estimate.
"What we're saying is that 8,500 people in Sitka would use the ferry if they had reliable service," he said.
Reeder noted that last year about 38,000 tickets were sold for flights between Juneau and Sitka.
"As a business, why would you ignore that number and not try to tap into it?" Reeder questioned.
Cuscia, however, pointed out that the state funded the Marine Highway System at a portion of its request. It asked for $45 million from the Legislature but received $32 million.
"What I think is very significant is that the governor is interested in improving service while decreasing the general-fund need," Cuscia said. "And at the same time it's his expectation that we'll make more efficient use of our resources."
The Sitka Sentinel contributed to this report. Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.