Parnell’s Ferry Plans Upsetting SE Leaders

A number of Southeast leaders are upset about the governor’s plan to scale back the Alaska Class Ferry project. He made his announcement Tuesday in Ketchikan. Legislators and members of an advisory board say they should have been consulted first.

You can tell a project’s in trouble when its website gets pulled off the ‘net. That’s what’s happened to the Alaska Class Ferry, which had a site including design elements, public comments and other information.

It’s down because Gov. Sean Parnell ordered an end to work on the 350-foot vessel, and begin design of smaller, less expensive ferries.

The announcement surprised Sen. Dennis Egan, a Juneau Democrat who was among those pushing to fund the original project.

“ We’re all upset that we weren’t informed way early in this process about what they were going to do and different scenarios that they were trying to come up with” Egan said. “We didn’t have a clue.”

And it’s not just the timing. Representative Beth Kerttula, another Juneau Democrat, said the new plan doesn’t make sense.

“This is a real change of direction and frankly, I’m not on board,” she said. “And I’m talking to the other members of the Southeast delegation and doubt many of them, in any, are either.”

The governor said change was needed because price estimates rose by up to 40 percent. Ferry officials had warned the appropriated $120 million was not enough.

“The new contemplated design is more of a streamlined, simple vessel,” said Captain Mike Neussl. He is the state Transportation Department’s deputy commissioner for marine operations. That means he runs the ferry system.

“The cost savings will come in the simplicity of no crew quarters, a smaller overall vessel and less amenities in terms of what the vessel contains,” he said.

Other design elements, such as food service and quiet rooms for the sick and elderly, are also off the table. Some of those features were meant to allow the ship more flexibility, so it could service more routes.

Many of the state’s ferries are old, and the Alaska Class ferry was part of the replacement plan. Kerttula worries changing direction will push back the construction date.

“This really delays us,” she said. “And that’s maybe more than anything something that aggravates me. We’ve been working hard, we were up and running, it was going on and here we are with a delay.”

The state will keep its architect, Seattle’s Elliott Bay Design Group. And it will continue working with its expected builder, Ketchikan’s Alaska Ship and Drydock.

Neussl said contracts will have to be renegotiated before work can start.

“The design process for the new ship won’t be as complicated as the Alaska Class Ferry, so it shouldn’t take as long to get to the full detailed design on that,” Neussl said. But I doubt that it will be done by next July, when the Alaska Class Ferry design was supposed to be done.

The governor called for building two smaller ships with the money appropriated for one larger vessel. Both would operate in Lynn Canal, connecting Haines, Skagway and Juneau. That’s the same route as was planned for the larger ship.

The Malaspina, which carries about 90 vehicles per sailing, covers the busy summer season.

Egan says the new ships’ projected 40-vehicle capacity is not enough.

“Well, Hell! Do you know how many vehicles get on in Juneau and go to Skagway and Haines in the summer?” Egan said. “Those ships are full.”

The chairman of Parnell’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board says the announcement caught him by surprise, too.

Robert Venables of Haines calls it, “A very disappointing and dramatic change of direction.” He’s traveling and couldn’t be reached by phone. But via email, he said the last board meeting, about a month ago, included no hint of a redesign.

He’s not alone in his surprise.

“It’s not the direction that we were looking at and we have been working on it for quite a while,” said Mike Korsmo of Skagway. Korsmo serves on the Marine Transportation Advisory Board. He wonders whether a smaller ship could handle the strong winds and rough waters of Lynn Canal winters.

“When we were looking at the Alaska Class, we were looking at it for the weather conditions, the routes it was going to run and the capacity it would need to handle,” Korsmo said. “So if we’re going to smaller vessels, then we definitely have to take a serious look at how that’s going to work.”

Despite their concerns, both board members say they’ll work with the governor and Legislature toward a new design.

One reason Parnell gave for the change is to make sure new ferries are built at Ketchikan’s shipyard.

“That was just wonderful to hear his recommitment to build the ferries here in the state,” said Alaska Ship and Drydock’s Doug Ward. He says about 170 people work at the facility.

He expects other ship-building jobs, so any ferry construction delays won’t affect the workforce.

“It’s a state-owned shipyards, these are state-owned vessels, these are Alaskans building the vessels,” Ward said. “And that was one of the primary goals, to create new employment opportunities in year-round family-wage careers and to attract new invest.”

The new plan will undergo further discussion once the legislative session begins and the ferry advisory board holds its next meeting.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.