I was gratified and relieved by the news on the evening of July 8 that our labor relations negotiators were able to reach an agreement with the three maritime unions on operation of the fast vehicle ferry Chenega.
This has been a lengthy and contentious negotiation, which has unfortunately impacted the residents of Prince William Sound, as well as the visitors who had planned to visit those communities this summer.
It has been particularly difficult for Cordova, which does not enjoy the advantage of being connected by road, as are Valdez and Whittier. Some of the impact has been relieved by the deployment of the ferry Aurora to Prince William Sound.
The agreement will allow the Chenega to finally enter service in Prince William Sound for the remainder of the summer season, following a period of crew training for both the type of vessel and the specific route. We are hopeful the Chenega will be carrying passengers and vehicles between Cordova, Valdez, and Whittier by late August.
The agreement with the Inland Boatman's Union, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, and the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots is an addendum to the unions' master agreement with the state, which covers all vessels in the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet, but is different from the sub-agreement that covers our other fast vehicle ferry, the Fairweather.
The agreement allows for operation of the Chenega with two crews seven days per week during the summer season in Prince William Sound (starting in May 2006), and with one crew four days per week during the fall-winter-spring schedule between Ketchikan and Petersburg.
The Prince William Sound communities, including Chenega Bay and Tatitlek, will continue to be served year-round by the Aurora.
Could the negotiations for this new agreement with the unions have been successfully concluded weeks or months ago? I would like to think they could have. However, any time the state enters into labor negotiations we have to be prepared for delays that are typically a part of the negotiating process. Indeed, we believed that, with the recently negotiated agreement for the Fairweather in hand, we would be able to reach agreement on the Chenega in fairly short order. But, again, there were operating differences that took time for the unions and the state to find solutions.
We at the Department of Transportation and the Alaska Marine Highway System have a positive outlook on the operation of the Chenega, and expect it to be as popular with its customers as the Fairweather has proven to be. With the Chenega and the Aurora operating in Prince William Sound, state ferry service to those communities will be more than double the frequency that was provided in the past.
Mike Barton is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.