My turn: Critics make erroneous claims about fast ferries

Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2005

At some point in the discussion of public policy, facts should be helpful. Recent commentary on the subject of the Fairweather and the Chenega suggested that the concept of a fast vehicle ferry had not been adequately studied by the previous administration and that the ferries were a "bad investment." What are the facts?

The developments that led to the operation of a high-speed catamaran ferry by the Alaska Marine Highway System started with the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan. The SATP effort began in late 1996 and continued until the plan's publication in March 1999. The work was conducted with the assistance of an advisory committee made up of virtually every community in Southeast Alaska, plus federal agencies and even Canadian representatives from Whitehorse, Prince Rupert, and the district of Stewart. Consultants included The McDowell Group from Juneau, Tinney Associates from Douglas, and HDR Engineering in Anchorage. The number of public hearings held can only be described as numerous. One of the transportation solutions suggested by the plan was a high speed shuttle ferry.

In an effort to deal with the pressing issue of service to Sitka, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities began work on a design study for a high-speed ferry. The requirement was for a ferry that would be able to transit Sergius Narrows at most stages of the tide; only a high-speed vessel could accomplish that feat. The Fast Vehicle Ferry Design Study Report was completed in January 2000. It soon became apparent that the same vessel was widely useful in Southeast.

The many ferry recommendations contained in the SATP demanded a vessel suitability study, to evaluate all of the factors involved. That study was completed in June 2000. Conducted by The Glosten Associates of Seattle, the VSS examined seven different classes of vessels to serve Southeast Alaska, from conventional monohulls to high-speed designs. Their study concluded that labor cost savings associated with day-boat operations more than offset the increased fuel costs associated with fast ferries. They also found that the SATP-based transportation systems would reduce annual operating costs by more than $80 million and construction costs by $242 million when compared with expansions of the existing AMHS model.

The travel demand projections on which the VSS was based were derived from a three-volume "marketing and pricing study" conducted by The McDowell Group and delivered to DOT/PF in September 2000.

To further test the concept, in April 2000 the AMHS conducted a trial run from Juneau to Sitka and return with the 132-foot catamaran Klondike Express. The vessel made 12 transits of Sergius Narrows en route, with tidal currents running as high as 6.4 knots. The demonstration was a thorough success, completing the round trip (including multiple Sergius Narrows transits) in 4 1/2 hours.

While all those efforts were ongoing, the Legislative Finance Division of the Alaska Legislature conducted a review of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan at the request of the Senate Finance Committee. Reporting in May 2000, the division found certain technical differences and minor data inconsistencies but in general validated the plan. The Finance Committee had no further comments.

On July 18, 2000, the mayors of Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Petersburg and Pelican addressed a joint letter to DOT/PF endorsing the "Sitka shuttle" concept design and asking that its service begin not later than the fall of 2003.

Some have argued that the leaps in fuel prices in recent months have priced the fast ferries out of operation. That reasoning is fallacious. Remember that the price of a gallon of fuel consumed by a conventional ferry is the same as for a fast ferry. The relative fuel cost for their operation has not changed. Fast ferries still save money over conventional ferries because their crews are smaller and because they operate only part of each day or week. What has changed is the administration's willingness to ask the Legislature to part with a fraction of the increased oil revenue it is earning throughout the state. It seems to prefer either passing those increased costs on to the ridership or reducing ferry service.

In the first six months of her operations in the Lynn Canal, the fast ferry Fairweather carried the third-highest number of passengers of any ferry in the system, even compared to those that operated almost 12 months. That kind of traveler acceptance is the result of careful consideration of Alaskans' travel needs, a professional design and construction effort, and almost eight years of public discussion and involvement. It is difficult to imagine what additional "planning" could achieve.

• Bob Doll is a transportation consultant, a former director of the Alaska Marine Highway System and a member of the Juneau Assembly.

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