A demonstration run of a fast ferry between Juneau and Sitka on Thursday showed the vessel could make the trip in the advertised four hours each way and navigate Sergius Narrows with minimal discomfort for passengers.
But it's less certain whether many minds were changed about the Knowles administration's decision to make fast ferries the linchpin of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan.
The state Department of Transportation contracted with Phillips' Cruises & Tours of Anchorage to take its premier ship, the Klondike Express, on the Juneau-Sitka run for a second time.
The 132-foot-long, 6,220-horsepower catamaran, which carries up to 350 passengers, travels an average speed of about 37 knots, compared to 16-17 knots for current state ferries. Designed in Australia and constructed by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Washington state about a year ago, the Klondike Express was used this summer for a 26-glacier day tour in Prince William Sound.
Nichols Brothers is one of five bidders now working on design proposals for the state's Juneau-Sitka dayboat, which is scheduled for deployment in 2003. The ship will be about 210 feet long and capable of carrying about 250 passengers and 35 vehicles at a minimum top speed of 32 knots, said Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System. The state is scheduled to award a construction contract in February.
An earlier test on the Juneau-Sitka run in April satisfied DOT officials about the ability of a high-speed catamaran to get in and out of Sergius Narrows at extreme tides. That has been a problem for the state's mainline vessels, which sometimes have had to wait for a couple of hours for currents to abate.
But the April trip didn't have enough "decision-makers" on board, and so an encore was scheduled, said Bob Doll, Southeast director for DOT. Almost 100 people showed up Thursday.
This time, one of those on board was Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican who prefers to build various roads throughout Southeast to improve ferry connections and cut travel time, rather than spend large sums on what he terms "water ski boats."
Taylor said the trip on the Klondike Express was "lovely."
"This is probably the finest (high-speed ferry) I've ever seen, as far as workmanship and quality of the vessel," he said. "As far as a speedboat running passengers, they'd be fine. ... My primary concern is the economy of the region, not just moving tourists around."
Taylor isn't happy with the Southeast transportation plan because it contemplates reduced mainline ferry service in the winter.
Under the plan, five fast ferries and three conventional shuttles eventually would be deployed year-round to circulate passengers within four zoned areas in Southeast. But with the limited carrying capacity of the high-speed catamarans, Taylor emphasized that moving cars and freight between zones would be harder in the off-season. He's also skeptical about the estimated $38 million price tag for a fast ferry, saying he wouldn't be surprised if they cost more than $50 million each.
Conversely, Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton, who also made the trip, said he remains comfortable with the fast-ferry approach.
"It's so easy to be resistant to change," Elton said. "There is risk, but the biggest risk is doing nothing."
Darryl Tseu, regional director for the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific, is concerned about layoffs under the Southeast transportation plan, because the fast ferries require fewer personnel and would be dayboat operations only. Nevertheless, Tseu acknowledged the Klondike Express "handles very well."
"I don't know that we can fight progress," he said. "We'll work on trying to adapt."
Klondike Express Capt. Nina Jones was guided by Alaska ferry captains as she navigated Sergius Narrows, but didn't seem concerned as she traversed the winding path at about 30 knots in currents ranging from about 4.3 to 5.7 knots.
"There's no question this kind of vessel can handle what they propose to do with it," Jones said afterward.
Ferry director Capacci had only one complaint: the calm conditions. "I wanted the weather to be a little worse."