Alaska Marine Highway shuts down regional service till March

Three ferries dock at the Ketchikan Shipyard for repairs and upgrades in 2012. All ships would tie up by early July if the Legislature does not reach a budget compromise. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Ferry service in Southeast Alaska will remain shutdown at least until March.

That’s following news that the regional ferry in service — the Matanuska — is being towed to Ketchikan for repairs. And the only other ship available for relief has been laid up for budgetary reasons.

“New issues with the reduction gear system have been identified and the manufacturer and contractor need the vessel to travel to the Ketchikan shipyard where it can be inspected in dry dock to determine if further repairs are necessary,” the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said in a statement Wednesday.

The Port of Bellingham’s marine terminals manager, Dave Warter, got an email from the Alaska Marine Highway System earlier in the day.

“They just said the sailings through February (are canceled), so I’m not sure when the boat would actually — I don’t think they know — but right now my staff in Bellingham is contacting all of the travelers going northbound that the ferry’s been canceled,” he said from the sidelines of a Southeast Conference meeting in Juneau.

Since the Matanuska broke down two weeks ago, some 20 passengers with vehicles have been camped in staterooms and eating out of the galley as engineers tried to repair the ship docked in Juneau’s Auke Bay. It was supposed to sail later this week.

But Wednesday morning, travel agents and passengers heard about the change in plans.

“We’re getting calls from the terminals in Washington (state) and here in Alaska about rescheduling of passengers that have bookings,” said travel agent Dave Berg, who co-owns Viking Travel in Petersburg. “There’s no other vessels that can take its place that they could put online quickly enough to make a difference.”

So aside from the tiny Lituya, which shuttles between Ketchikan and Metlakatla, the fleet is idle. All are either being overhauled or were tied up for budget reasons.

One of those mainliners is the Malaspina. The state pulled it out of service in December. At the time, transportation officials said the 57-year-old vessel would soon need $16 million in steel work. Additionally, its Coast Guard certificate was about to expire.

The decision to leave the marine highway system without a backup alarmed ferry workers.

“We tried for a very long time to try and see what we could do to keep at least one vessel in some sort of ready reserve status,” said Shannon Adamson of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, which represents deck officers. “And due to budgetary issues, we were told that anything that is currently tied up down in Ketchikan is tied up for a specific reason, and they don’t have the budget to be able to keep anything in a ready reserve status.”

Adamson said the decision to further save money by not assigning a maintenance crew worried engineers. She said her union and the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association — that’s the engineers union — strongly recommended putting the ship in warm layup.

“It’s keeping the equipment on board, exercised and working and keeping at least a few crew members on board to make sure something like this specifically didn’t happen,” she said.

She’s referring to recent damage from rainwater that burst through scuppers and flooded staterooms on the Malaspina. There’s concern that getting it back in service now could be even more complicated.

“Basically the Malaspina developed an issue on an exterior deck drain that runs through an exterior wall,” regional state transportation spokesperson Sam Dapcevich said Tuesday. “There was some leakage from that drain that allowed rainwater to enter some cabin space. They identified the issue quickly, and they corrected it.”

Still, some lawmakers are concerned over the fate of the fleet.

Alaska Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said Tuesday that the Legislature never signed off on letting the Malaspina go.

“And it is a that is a concern, because the Legislature hasn’t stepped in with a policy call on what they feel is appropriate use of state funds and federal funds in refurbishing old ships versus buying new,” he said.

The ferry budget was cut by $43 million last year. But Stedman said the budget compromise — which was nearly twice as much as initially proposed by the governor — was with the understanding that vessels would be maintained and minimum service would persist through the winter.

“We were expecting 285 weeks of service and service throughout the winter at a reduced rate, not no service,” he said from his office in Juneau.

Yet no service is the reality until at least March, when the Matanuska is projected to have its engines repaired in dry dock.

Transportation officials defended the decision to keep the Malaspina offline. They say there just wasn’t money to keep the her running as a backup. The ship still has its original engines from 1963, and it’s not just the steel work that’s a pressing need: The vessel needs a complete repowering. The final bill could come to $41 million.

“Looking at what we just went through with the Matanuska, it went for an 11-month overhaul — at repower — and it turned into two years and at double the cost,” Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon told CoastAlaska hours before news of the cancellations were widely known.

“The fear was that we would end up with the same thing with the (Malaspina),” he added. “So based on what we had in the budget looking forward, the decision was to tie it up.”

Stedman said it’s the Legislature that’s tasked with deciding where the state’s money goes and setting policy. He said he wants the agency to be more forthcoming.

“If you’re not told that there are substantial maintenance needs, and that they’ve been built up for years,” Stedman said, “and you’ve been asking them about their maintenance levels, and they’ve been saying that they’re up to snuff and they’re fine, when they’re not — we’ve got a discussion coming up with marine highway and DOT.”

He said he’ll be holding hearings over the state of each vessel in the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Meanwhile, travel agents like Berg are handing out refunds as passengers and freight customers make other arrangements — if they can.

“It’s sorry news for sure,” he said.

It’s not immediately clear how many people are affected by the extended shutdown.

“AMHS is aware of travel needs for upcoming school and community tournaments in March and is exploring options for alternative service in the event Matanuska is unable to return to service as planned,” DOT’s statement added.

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

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