Marine highway schedule hangs on fast-ferry decision

Next summer's timetable won't be issued until late September

Posted: Sunday, August 03, 2003

Next year's summer state ferry schedule will be released late this year to give the Department of Transportation time to figure out whether to put a new fast ferry in Juneau or Sitka.

The schedule should have been out in August, but will not be released until late September, according to DOT Deputy Commissioner Tom Briggs.

Briggs said the decision on where to put the ferry will be made after DOT's Marine Transportation Advisory Board meets in Haines on Sept. 15 at the annual Southeast Conference meeting.

The Southeast Conference is an affiliation of government, industry and community groups.

"It's a little problematic, because I'd like to see them come up with a recommendation to the commissioner," Briggs said. "I would have liked to have had the recommendation by the first of September, but that's just not going to happen. We've got to start booking by the first of October."

The new fast ferry Fairweather was to be home-ported in Sitka and make regular runs to Juneau beginning in May 2004. But on Friday the Marine Transportation Advisory Board voted to recommend that DOT Commissioner Mike Barton consider as one option home-porting the vessel in Juneau and running it up Lynn Canal five days a week and to Sitka the other two days.

Under that plan, the Fairweather would make two direct nonstop trips, one to Haines and the other to Skagway, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from June to September. On Wednesdays and Sundays the vessel would go to Sitka.

Though Briggs wanted to recommend that route as the board's preferred alternative, board members decided to send the plan to Barton as one of several options.

Robert Venables, a board member and economic development director for the Haines Borough, noted that the plan would not provide a link from Haines to Skagway for three days of the week.

"That's an important link," he said. "There's a lot of traffic between Haines and Skagway."

The city of Sitka has hired Michael J. Read of Transportation Engineering NorthWest, a consulting firm based in Seattle, to make the case for home-porting the vessel in Sitka.

Briggs told Sitkans last month that DOT would discontinue mainline ferry service to Sitka and nearby villages as a cost-saving measure if the Fairweather is home-ported there.

Sitka Mayor Fred Reeder said then that ridership would increase between Sitka and Juneau if the fast ferry services the two communities as originally planned.

"What we're saying is that 8,500 people in Sitka would use the ferry if they had reliable service," he said.

Briggs said home-porting the Fairweather in Juneau would allow DOT to discontinue running another ferry in the system, possibly the Taku, saving the Marine Highway System more than $500,000 in 2004 and up to $2.8 million in 2005.

He said the Alaska Marine Highway could build a shuttle service similar to the private Inter-Island Ferry Authority that serves Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island, to run between Haines and Skagway. Another alternative would be for DOT to use the Taku to provide shuttle ferry service between the two communities.

"... As we add a vessel, we have to take one off," Briggs said. "There's just no way we can increase our fleet size without having some serious cost duplications."

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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