The shipyard repairing the state ferry Columbia says the work is just days from completion. But state officials say there's still major work to be done on the ferry whose absence has inconvenienced passengers and crews throughout Southeast.
Even after repairs are done, the Columbia will have to be tested at sea for a day and undergo a two-day Coast Guard inspection. But shortly after that it will return to service and the Malaspina will go back to its North Lynn Canal run, said Capt. George Capacci of the Alaska Marine Highway System.
While other vessels have filled in for the Malaspina in North Lynn Canal, it has been replacing the Columbia on its Bellingham-to-Skagway run.
"You just put the Columbia on that schedule and the Malaspina comes back to North Lynn Canal, and everybody is happy then," Capacci said.
The Columbia was damaged in an electrical fire last June. The $10 million contract with Alaska Ship and Drydock in Ketchikan is to repair that damage, which included the switchboard, and to modernize and enlarge the passenger cabins.
Doug Ward, the company's director of shipyard development, said its work is essentially done and the Columbia will be turned over to the state "any day now."
"Most of the installation is complete and some of the preliminary testing has been accomplished," said Lt. Cmdr. Joe Paitl of the Marine Safety Office in Juneau. But the Coast Guard still has to test the system while it's running, he said.
"You have a new artificial heart, but you have to make sure the veins are unplugged and the whole circulatory system works," Capacci said. It could be days or weeks before the ship is turned over to the state, he said.
The work was first scheduled to be completed by May 26, but the deadline was extended to July 2. The company has said the delays were warranted by changes to the original specifications and increases in the scope of work. The state has said the work nonetheless shouldn't have taken so long.
The change orders will add $300,000 to $500,000 to the construction costs, Ward estimated.
Ward said he expects to discuss liquidated damages, as the contract allows for, with the ferry system. But he said he didn't think the damages would apply because the delays were due to unforeseen circumstances.
The real financial losses to the state are from lost bookings as passengers, vehicles and cargo had to be accommodated on smaller ships.
More than 50,000 passengers with reservations have been rescheduled, according to the ferry system's Web site. And the system stopped taking new reservations for vehicles and cabins for Southeast routes in July because it couldn't be sure which ship they would be booked on because of the uncertain date of when the Columbia would return to service.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.