The state ferry Columbia, flagship of the Alaska Marine Highway fleet, will be out of service for the rest of the season, state officials announced Thursday.
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The Columbia threw a piston rod in its starboard engine Monday on its way to Juneau from Bellingham, Wash., but made it in to Auke Bay on its remaining engine. The ferry has since been sent empty to a Ketchikan shipyard for repairs.
Marine highway officials called it a "tough decision" to take the ship off the profitable Bellingham route.
"The summer season is an important revenue-generating period, and the Columbia, being on the Bellingham run, is a big part of those revenues," said John Falvey, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System.
During the summer months, the Columbia typically brings in $400,000 a week in revenues, said Mike Chambers, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
A disappointed Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the loss of the Columbia illustrated the need for investing in newer ships.
"We need more funding to keep ships up and running," she said. "The Marine Highway System is our highway, and all highways need to be subsidized."
The ferry system has an extra piston rod for the Columbia on hand in Ketchikan, but will need to have a bearing specially manufactured before it can be installed, Chambers said.
That's a process that's likely to take five weeks, and with the ferry already being scheduled to be taken out of service this fall for annual maintenance, the decision was made to take it out of service early, he said.
The ferry system is now trying to accommodate passengers with reservations on its four other ferries that leave the state, but it may be difficult, Chambers said.
Despite the loss of the Columbia's capacity, there should continue to be plenty of room for those traveling northbound," Chambers said.
"This time of year, the concern is with southbound traffic," he said.
Chambers said he didn't know how much available capacity there was on other vessels, but the system would be trying to accommodate the Bellingham passengers on the system's four other vessels that travel outside Alaska where possible.
Chambers recommended passengers keep in touch with their nearest AMHS terminal or call (800)642-0066 for schedule updates.
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