Abrupt Alaska ferry cancellations strand hundreds of people, vehicles

The Aurora, a 235-foot Alaska state ferry, approaches the dock in Whittier, its departure point for its trip across Prince William Sound to Cordova. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

Some 999 passengers with 526 vehicles were affected by the Alaska Marine Highway System’s abrupt cancellation of ferry service across much of Southeast. About 68 percent of passengers and 62 percent of vehicles canceled for a refund either because there was no alternative service or it was not feasible to travel.

That’s according to figures released Monday by the Alaska Department of Transportation.

Of the 682 passengers who canceled for a refund, 493 of them had little choice. That’s because the runs to Angoon, Tenakee Springs, Pelican and Gustavus are suspended until further notice.

Gustavus residents Steve and Deborah Hemenway had put off travel because of the ferry strike and then delay in a published winter schedule. But Steven Hemenway says the ferry’s reservation office assured the retired couple as late of October 15 there would be service for their annual trip to the Lower 48.

“We tried to work with the Alaska Marine Highway System and just you know, we were just abandoned completely by it,” he said Monday from Tacoma where they were visiting for annual medical and dental appointments.

After arguing repairs to the ferry LeConte would be too costly to undertake, the Alaska Marine Highway System started calling passengers last week to break the news.

Steve Hemenway says he’s been a regular on the ferries since 1976. This is unlike anything he’s ever experienced.

“I’ve been stranded a couple times, but usually it was because of mechanical issues, and it was until the next ferry,” he said. “But I’ve contributed a lot of revenue to the ferry system and after all that time — this is what I get.”

There’s reduced service to Lynn Canal communities of Haines and Skagway. That’s allowed rebookings for most passengers and vehicles.

State transportation officials announced the LeConte needed $2.8 million more work than had been budgeted. State transportation officials say the plan is a side-by-side comparison of the Aurora and LeConte and to repair the vessel that needs the least amount of steel work.

“Repair estimates for the Aurora should be available by November 15, which will give a more firm estimate for future service,” the DOT is telling ferry passengers.

Meanwhile, the two Alaska Class Ferries completed this year at a cost of $120 million are not sailing as they are slated to have side doors installed this winter. 

Regional state transportation spokesman Sam Dapcevich says his agency is negotiating with Vigor Alaska shipyard for this contract. He didn’t have a timeline of when the Tazlina or Hubbard ferries would be in service.

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

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