Alaska seeks private operators to fill gaps in winter ferry schedule

People stand outside of a boat in a line, in the snow.
Haines residents get ready to board an Allen Marine boat chartered by the local school district in 2020. (Henry Leasia/KHNS)

The state of Alaska is looking to the private sector to offer ferry service between Juneau and four Southeast villages facing months-long gaps this winter from January to March.

An invitation to bid was posted Nov. 29 on a state website seeking operators for vessels at least 75-feet long and capable of carrying 125 passengers or multiple vehicles for some Southeast routes. It doesn’t mention a range of cost but invites bidders to make their own proposals.

The state Department of Transportation says it’s responding to concerns that a two-month gap in ferry service could bring additional hardships.

Originally we didn’t have any fill-in service plan during that time, but we have received requests from communities,” DOT’s regional spokesman Sam Dapcevich told CoastAlaska. “And we are looking for a way to meet that demand.”

Hoonah Mayor Gerry Byers says that when ferry service goes away, the cost of essentials goes up in his village of about 800 people on Chichagof Island.

Everyone has had a hard time during the pandemic,” he said. “Now, with all the prices going up, coming into winter is going to make it harder for residents to be able to live in their home communities.”

That was the fear when Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration announced gaping holes in the winter ferry schedule.

One reason is that at the end of the year, the LeConte, a 47-year-old workhorse that serves Southeast villages, is going into dry-dock for a scheduled two-month overhaul that will keep it offline until at least March.

DOT’s bidding documents ask for operators to provide regular and on-call service to connect Juneau with the communities of Hoonah, Angoon, Gustavus and Pelican during that period and perhaps beyond.

Drivers move their cars and trucks off the ferry LeConte at the Angoon terminal in 2010.
The LeConte unloads vehicles at the old Angoon ferry terminal in 2014. The ferry – built in 1974 – is going in for its annual overhaul and will be out of service until at least March 2022. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska).

This wouldn’t be the first time DOT has called up private operators to fill-in. It chartered a catamaran last year to fill gaps in upper Lynn Canal. And it signed contracts with vessel operators Goldbelt and Allen Marine for some routes, though that never fully materialized due to the pandemic.

But Dapcevich says this request is designed to also include at least one vessel capable of carrying vehicles and on relatively short notice for the foreseeable future.

“We would have some a contract in place with different vendors, and we could call them up and say, ‘Hey – are you available?’” he said.

Goldbelt, Inc. doesn’t have any vessels capable of carrying vehicles. But Juneau’s urban Native corporation’s chief executive says its catamarans could offer passenger-only service.

“Goldbelt does plan to put a bid in,” Goldbelt CEO McHugh Pierre told CoastAlaska. I’m really excited for Department of Transportation, and Alaska Marine Highway to be able to finally make this step to allow for routine, dependable transportation that is sized appropriately for each community.”

Allen Marine Tours which operates a fleet of catamarans for whale watching and other excursions is also evaluating the prospect of bidding, the Sitka-based vessel operator’s Zakary Kirkpatrick wrote in an email.

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State ferry workers skeptical

The plan to rely more on private operators is, unsurprisingly, getting a cool reception from the unions representing marine highway crew members.

I would think that these (maintenance) issues can be anticipated,” said Ben Goldrich, a Juneau-based leader of Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association. His union represents about 75 licensed marine engineers who work on the state’s ferries.

“And we’d like a better understanding of why the state’s not using resources that they currently have tied to the dock,” he added

One asset is the Tazlina, a $60 million Alaska Class Ferry built in Ketchikan. It briefly entered service in 2019 but has spent most of its service life tied up due to a number issues, principally its limited range due to its configuration as a day boat.

Dapcevich listed off a few reasons the Tazlina won’t be activated while the LeConte is out.

“Because we didn’t plan for it,” Dapcevich said. “We are unable to crew it up quickly enough to meet the time frame for January service.”

Another reason, marine highway officials say, is that the idled vessel doesn’t have all its certifications. And getting a short-term certificate, they say, could be cumbersome to the third-party auditor that issues its certificate.

This $60 million Alaska Class Ferry was recently built in Ketchikan. But the Hubbard has yet to enter service in the Alaska Marine Highway System and remains tied up at a private dock on Ketchikan’s Ward Cove. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

But Goldrich, the union boss, also says he’s skeptical whether DOT will be able to find a vessels that meets its needs.

I’m not sure that those vessels exist or are available,” Goldrich said. “Seems like the state ought to be using their newer resources in this case.”

In the rural coastal villages, local leaders say they’re glad that the state is supplementing the winter schedule.

“It’s better than nothing,” Byers, the Hoonah mayor, said. He says the backdrop for all of this is the federal infrastructure package’s promise of $1 billion for a new five-year essential ferry service program.

My big things is, the state got all this federal money for ferries and I think we should try to utilize it to the best advantage to help the communities survive,” Byers said.

Alaska Class Ferry to get $15 million upgrade

There is some progress in upgrading the Tazlina’s sister ship Hubbard with crew quarters that would extend that Alaska Class Ferry’s range and make it more suitable as a fill-in for the half-century old ferries that normally ply the panhandle.

DOT confirmed that Vigor Alaska is the low bidder at just over $15 million to do the work early next year. The contract has not been finalized, though representatives for the company that operates the Ketchikan shipyard say they are “cautiously optimistic” they’ll get the tender.

The bids for private ferry operators are due on Dec. 15 with the goal to finalize the contract on Dec. 28.

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

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