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A coalition of business owners in Haines and Skagway says it can run a ferry system between Juneau, Haines and Skagway cheaper than the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The Lynn Canal leg of the ferry system is the most financially successful route in the state and could provide a cheaper alternative to building a road from Juneau to Skagway, according to Skagway business owner Jan Wrentmore, a member of the Lynn Canal Transportation Project.
A group of more than two dozen business owners has released a preliminary business plan on the proposed ferry authority, said Wrentmore, owner of the Red Onion Saloon in Skagway. The business plan was written by Kent Miller, an economist in Ketchikan and one of the chief architects of the Inter-island Ferry Authority, which has operated a shuttle ferry between Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island since early 2002.
Business owners are concerned about a loss of ferry service in Lynn Canal and the money and travelers it brings to their towns if the state Department of Transportation moves forward with the road project, Wrentmore said. She cited a McDowell Group study from 2003, showing that 40 percent of the Southeast passengers traveled the Lynn Canal route in 2001.
"We've always understood that over half the people traveling with vehicles pass through our port," Wrentmore said. "We would like enough time to see if (the ferry authority) will work. If we are going to save the state and federal government money by doing this it would be ridiculous to build that road."
Road advocate Murray Walsh of Juneau disagreed that the proposed ferry system would be cheaper than a road link, estimating that road maintenance would cost roughly $1.5 million a year.
"No combination of vessels would reasonably equal the capability and capacity of a road," Walsh said.
Miller said the Lynn Canal ferry authority would consist of a 200-passenger fast ferry that would carry 32 cars and travel at a speed of 34 knots. The vessel, set to be home-ported in Skagway, is based on a ferry operating in Lake Michigan called the Lake Express.
He said the ship would carry only light vehicles of about 10,000 pounds and would use half of the fuel consumed by the fast ferry Fairweather. It would provide twice-a-day service to Juneau, Haines and Skagway during the summer, Miller said. The ship would make one trip during the fall, winter and spring.
Another ship, based on the Inter-Island Ferry Authority's ship Prince of Wales, would carry 99 passengers and 30 vehicles at a speed of about 15 knots, Miller said.
"That boat would start at Auke Bay and make one trip to Haines and Skagway (per day)," Miller said. "It's more like the (state ferries) Aurora and LeConte but a little smaller."
Unlike the proposed fast ferry, the conventional passenger-vehicle ferry would have the capacity to carry larger vehicles, such as trucks and RVs.
The group made its first presentation in September to the Southeast Conference, a coalition of government bodies and businesses in Southeast, but Wrentmore said the project is still in its early stages.
State ferry system director John Falvey said the Southeast Conference presentation was the first he'd heard of group. He said was uncertain if it had discussed the plan with Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Tom Briggs. Briggs could not be reached for comment.
Wrentmore said neither the Murkowski administration nor the Department of Transportation have been involved in the project.
Joe Geldhof, legal counsel for the ferry workers union Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, said he's concerned about the effect a privately operated ferry system would have on workers' wages, adding that the vessels would be publicly financed with "scab labor."
"On behalf of the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, we think it's bad public policy and we'll fight it any way we can," Geldhof said.
Wrentmore said she's more concerned about a road, that would also require a significant subsidy, making ferry service obsolete.
"It's kind of hard for me to see how they can oppose this if they are going to do away with ferry service anyway because of a road," Wrentmore said.