The Alaska Department of Transportation wants one last round of public feedback to firm up the newly amended Southeast Transportation Plan, a package that includes eight new shuttle ferries and a substantial change in travel options for the public over the next five years.
DOT recently announced changes to the estimated $400 million transportation plan, including a tentative staging schedule for five high-speed catamaran ferries.
Last week, the revised plan won conditional support from the Southeast Conference, a regional organization including business and government leaders.
On Thursday, the department is sponsoring a demonstration run of a 37-knot, 350-passenger fast ferry from Juneau to Sitka and back. Government officials, civic leaders and news media are being invited, part of an effort to overcome doubts about the ability to navigate Sergius Narrows at extreme tides and about the performance of fast ferries generally.
And next month, a round of public meetings will begin in about 10 Southeast communities.
Bob Doll, Southeast region director for DOT, said he wants an official "addendum" to the plan to be in place well in advance of the 2001 legislative session, when the department will ask lawmakers to approve a special bonding measure aimed at accelerating transportation projects. Comments must be taken on the draft addendum as soon as possible, he said.
The Southeast Transportation Plan, issued in spring 1999, contemplates four zones for ferry service. Conventional vessels would link the zones, but new shuttle ferries, terminals and berths would greatly increase movement within them.
DOT says the annual state subsidy for operations and maintenance would be $80 million less than if new mainline vessels were built to handle the traffic growth projected for the year 2020. The saving is achieved largely through reduced labor costs from dayboat operations.
There has been controversy about the proposed reliance on fast ferries, especially given a financially disastrous experience by British Columbia.
"We're trying to familiarize people with the concept," Doll said. Despite B.C.'s experience, fast ferries have been profitable in most of the world, he said.
A test run to Sitka in April resolved concerns about navigating the narrows, although Thursday's trip with a commercial vessel from Prince William Sound is being made to reinforce the point, Doll said. DOT plans to award a design-build contract for the first fast ferry to one of five U.S. shipyards next spring and begin the Juneau-Sitka dayboat operation in 2003.
"It just has people nervous," said Loren Gerhard, executive director of the Southeast Conference. "DOT says they're going to make us all warm and fuzzy on this; they're going to make us believers."
But in passing a resolution supporting the transportation plan, the conference hedged, asking to see worldwide research on fast ferries. If concerns about fast ferries aren't resolved by its annual meeting next year, the conference proposes at least a year of operating the Juneau-Sitka dayboat before the state commits to additional vessels.
Four more fast ferries, not yet funded, are being proposed: A Juneau-Petersburg shuttle, a Ketchikan-South Mitkof shuttle, a Ketchikan-Prince Rupert shuttle and a Lynn Canal shuttle.
Although not formally ranked, the Lynn Canal shuttle is listed last in the DOT's addendum, despite the fact that Gov. Tony Knowles has backed fast ferries, rather than a road to Skagway, as the solution to the Juneau access issue.
Doll said the order of the listing was deliberately provocative. "I wanted to get interest in this subject. If Juneau is interested in that ferry, then I need to hear from the public that feels that way."
The transportation plan envisions continued summer dayboat operations by the Malaspina in Lynn Canal, a year-round fast ferry on the same route, continued mainline service and a small, conventional vessel for a year-round Skagway-Haines shuttle.
ut based on a phone call Monday, Doll said, at least one Skagway business owner is concerned by the lag time for the Lynn Canal fast ferry, which is scheduled for delivery in 2005. Even that schedule could be disrupted by assigning one of the new fast ferries to Prince William Sound, he said.
Aside from five fast ferries and three conventional-design shuttle ferries, the transportation plan also includes two non-state shuttles being developed by the Inter-island Ferry Authority serving Ketchikan, Metlakatla and Prince of Wales Island.
Additional issues still must be resolved. For example, the Southeast Conference also wants to see more analysis of the impact of reduced winter mainline service upon freight shipping capacity.