Alaska’s fast ferries are being prepped for sale

The FVF Fairweather steams through Chatham Strait in 2011. It operated much faster than the rest of the fleet. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

The state is moving towards selling off its fast ferries. The FVF Fairweather left its home port of Juneau’s Auke Bay on Thursday for the last time. It’ll join its sister ship FVF Chenega that’s been out of service since 2015.

This week, workers began stripping the Fairweather of non-essential items like coffee machines and artwork in anticipation for a trip to Ketchikan’s Ward Cove. That’s where surplus ferries like its sister ship Chenega are tied up when they’re out of service.

There’s been no official announcement. But ferry spokeswoman Aurah Landau confirmed both vessels are headed for sale in the coming months.

“The vessel will be sailed to Ketchikan on Thursday and laid up in Ward Cove,” she wrote. “(Department of Transportation and Public Facilities) will then begin the process to surplus both fast ferries in consultation with the federal transportation agencies that provided funding for their construction and repair. The Fairweather will retain essential operating equipment, but non-essential equipment such as coffee machines and art will be repurposed for other vessels. This is the same process that was followed when the department sold the Bartlett and the Taku.”

Here’s the rest of DOT’s emailed statement:

  • The ferry Fairweather will be removed from service this month, and the staff will be reassigned to other vacant positions
  • With completion of the Tazlina, and its deployment in Lynn Canal this summer, the Fairweather is no longer needed.
  • Operating the Tazlina in Lynn Canal, instead of the Fairweather, is expected to save the AMHS approximately $400,000 due to the lower cost of fuel.
  • Although the Tazlina operates at a speed of 15-16 knots and can only make one trip per day in Lynn Canal, its greater capacity of 53 vehicles (compared to 31 for the Fairweather) can provide a similar level of service.
  • The Fairweather will go into long term storage in Ketchikan until it is surplused according to state and federal requirements. The other AMHS fast ferry, Chenega, is already is long term storage in KTN.
  • AMHS has determined it cannot operate these vessels given current and anticipated funding levels, and the expense of long term storage is not justified.
  • Both fast ferries will be put up for sale in the next few months.
  • The crew of the Fairweather will be “laid off” this month in accordance with union contracts, but there are sufficient vacancies on other vessels. No one should be out of work.

The move to take the Fairweather offline as part of a sale is yet another management reversal by state officials.

It’s caught many by surprise including Robert Venables, chair of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

“They are an anomaly to the fleet in licensing and the amount of fuel that it takes,” Venables said Wednesday. “But folks that ride them certainly enjoy it. So there’s a lot of mixed feelings and unknowns out there as far as what the decisions are based on.”

The fast ferry Fairweather docks at Juneau’s Auke Bay Ferry Terminal in 2013. It’s slated to be replaced by the slower, larger Tazlina. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The two catamarans — purchased 15 years ago for $36 million apiece — are capable of doing more than 30 knots. The Fairweather was popular in Lynn Canal as it allowed two trips a day between Juneau and Skagway.

Next month it’ll be replaced by the brand new Alaska-class ferry Tazlina. The Alaska-class vessels are slower, capable of a single daily run. But they have more capacity on their vehicle decks and burn less fuel.

The decision’s timing comes as the Dunleavy administration is poised to award a $250,000 contract to an economic consultant to look at ways to divest the state from ferry service — including privatization.

“The reshaping study is to find ways to reduce the state’s financial burden for the system, so there is no need to wait for whatever additional cost-saving measures the report identifies,” Landau wrote in a follow-up email. “Waiting would just cost the state additional storage costs.”

The ferry system is facing questions over its future: The governor’s proposed transportation budget would end service in October.

That’s been met with resistance in the Legislature and the public.

Ferry reform advocates — including Venables — have been leading an effort to change the ferry’s management structure to make it more efficient.

“The system needs a plan forward and, you know, we we know that these things are going to have to happen,” he said. “We’d rather see an overall plan first and then have it implemented rather than the piecemeal approach.”

The state agency said the Fairweather’s crew would be reassigned to other vessels.

Last year the state sold the 55-year-old ferry Taku. It fetched about $170,000 and was sold for scrap in Asia.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

Previous articleAlaska News Nightly: Thursday, April 4, 2019
Next articleFor one petroleum engineering student, oil prices change but the dream stays the same