B.C. ferry woes teach Alaska

State aims to learn from failed Canadian system to avoid problems with fast ferries in SE

Posted: Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Alaska Marine Highway System officials say state proposals for fast ferries will avoid problems encountered in British Columbia. The Canadian province's fast ferries have encountered a host of problems and could be sold as scrap.

B.C. Transportation Minister Judith Reid said last week that keeping the three ships running is better than mothballing them. Attempts to sell the ferries have not been successful.

"There is the option of scrapping them, which (the government) would have to look at the business case for that and see what that would bring back to the province," Reid said.

British Columbia's 402-foot aluminum-hulled catamarans were forced to slow down to avoid damaging coastline and can't carry as many large vehicles as other ships. The project also ran into construction delays, cost overruns and engine problems. The boats, budgeted in 1994 at about $139 million, ended up costing roughly $305.6 million.

Alaska Department of Transportation Southeast Regional Director Bob Doll said the British Columbia ferries are much larger than Alaska's proposed ships and are used on shorter routes. Plus, the B.C. ferry system built and designed the vessels so it had no one to hold accountable when there were problems, he said.

"Maybe the most significant thing in the long term is that B.C. government initiated the ferry design and construction program to revitalize the Vancouver shipbuilding industry. They had multiple motives from the very beginning," he said.

Doll said the Alaska Marine Highway System is seeking a design that has been used successfully elsewhere. A bidder's conference for Alaska's first two fast ferries is scheduled next week in Seattle with price proposals due in December, Doll said.

The state rejected its only bid for a Sitka-to-Juneau fast ferry this spring, opting to go out to bid again. Doll said the marine highway system has seven design-build teams express interest in its request for proposals the second time, the same number as last time.

But state Sen. Robin Taylor questions how the AMHS will avoid problems seen in Canada, especially after design errors that emerged with the system's newest regular ferry, the Kennicott. He said he's worried about how wave and weather conditions will affect fast ferries.

"I don't know whether they could work here or not," the Wrangell Republican said.

British Columbia's ferry system put its first fast ferry into service in 1999 and has used the ships to run between the mainland and Vancouver Island. They are currently tied up, but two of the ferries were operating earlier this year, said BC Ferries spokeswoman Betty Nicholson. The system operates 40 ships on 25 routes.

The fast ferries have been for sale for about year and the system received 20 expressions of interest from companies worldwide last fall. The system has no specific asking price, she said.

"Just because they're not suitable for BC ferry routes doesn't mean they're not suitable for other routes around the world," she said.

Comments that the ships would be sold for scrap were extreme, Nicholson said.

"The whole priority here is to sell the ships. That's BC Ferries' priority and that's the government's priority," she said.

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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