A fast vehicle ferry should replace the Malaspina in Lynn Canal and the Alaska Marine Highway System should move to a "hub and spoke" system in the northern Panhandle, linking small towns directly to Juneau, according to a study released today.
The study by The McDowell Group, a Juneau-based research and consulting firm, is a starting point for state officials in determining how to amend the Southeast Transportation Plan.
The plan to date hasn't been specific about transportation improvements for Lynn Canal because of controversy about a proposed road to Skagway. Gov. Tony Knowles suspended work on an environmental impact statement for the road, and city voters narrowly endorsed improved ferry service over the road in an advisory ballot question last year.
The McDowell report agrees with the organizing principle of the Southeast plan, which is to match service levels with demand and use high-speed vessels to make day trips and eliminate overnight crew costs.
"I think that fleshes out where the department was going anyway," said Joe Geldhof, a lawyer for marine engineers who was a leader in last year's campaign to support better ferry service instead of a road. "This is welcome news and hopefully this will tone down the rhetoric of people who have been throwing bombs at the Marine Highway System for years without any basis. ... I've always thought the Marine Highway System is doing the best they can under difficult circumstances."
But the Southeast Conference, an advocacy organization of governments, businesses and individuals throughout the region, is going ahead with its own study of how to operate the Marine Highway System "in a more business-like fashion," said Executive Director Loren Gerhard. "It's not intended to criticize anybody who's currently operating or who had a part in implementing the system."
And Murray Walsh, transportation chairman for the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, noted that the state has yet to operate a fast vehicle ferry.
"That's the linchpin of the whole thing - whether fast vehicle ferries can be had at a reasonable price," Walsh said. "We're all still waiting to see how the first one turns out. ... It's kind of a nail-biter right now."
The state hopes to award a contract for a fast vehicle ferry in January, said Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Marine Highway System. It would be deployed as a Sitka-Juneau dayboat in 2004. The state is going through the bidding process a second time because the final bidder in the previous round, who offered to build the ship for $35.99 million, was found to be "nonresponsive" to specifications in the request for proposals.
Nevertheless, the McDowell report calls for a fast vehicle ferry in Lynn Canal "as soon as possible." Even before then, the state should deploy a shuttle between Haines and Skagway, the firm advises. That way, the Malaspina could alternate dayboat service between Haines and Skagway, cutting its daily operations to 12 hours or fewer.
At the summer peak, the fast vehicle ferry could make two runs a day, the report says. Each week in the winter, the Lynn Canal communities could expect one mainliner and three to four fast vehicle ferry trips.
Walsh said he's disappointed that the report doesn't address the possibility of a new ferry terminal at Cascade Point, on Berners Bay, which would reduce travel times.
In the northern Panhandle, McDowell would change the whole concept of routing, from a circuit to a hub-and-spoke. A fast passenger-only ferry could serve all communities except Yakutat, supplementing the LeConte. Routes would be based on linking small communities with Juneau as directly as possible, rather than making trips among them.
"Better service is actually less frequency," Capacci said.
McDowell recommends first leasing a fast passenger-only ferry and then buying one later, if it proves successful. Eventually, a fast vehicle ferry also could be deployed.
Gerhard said he has heard concern in Angoon about the potential loss of freight and baggage capacity in moving the LeConte to hub-and-spoke service.
"The LeConte is the pipeline to those communities," Gerhard said. "They've just got to be careful with the details."
Capacci said the McDowell recommendations "make a lot of sense." But the sense of urgency expressed in the report might not be realistic, he said.
" 'As soon as possible' might be years and years and years," he said. "I love planners when they say that."
The Department of Transportation will decide within a couple of months whether to modify the McDowell recommendations in adopting the second addendum to the Southeast plan, Capacci said. Then a decision will have to be made about how high to rank the improvements in Lynn Canal and the northern Panhandle on the priority list for the region.
"It'll all have to compete," Capacci said.
Gerhard said the department can move relatively fast on some of the improvements, such as the Haines-Skagway shuttle. Capacci said the vessel would cost about $10 million.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.