Matanuska repair delays could mean longer ferry service gaps in upper Lynn Canal

A ferry at a dock.
The Matanuska docked on Friday, February 7, 2020 at the Auke Bay ferry terminal in Juneau, Alaska. The ship is headed to Ketchikan for repairs. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Alaska Marine Highway System announced this week that the Matanuska state ferry will need more time in the shipyard to repair steelwork. Their new target date to get it up and running again is Jan. 31. That will leave Skagway without service from Jan. 8 until Feb. 5. Haines will be served by the Kennicott on Jan. 12, but that ship won’t call on Skagway.

On Dec. 9, the mayors of both Skagway and Haines wrote a letter to the general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, Capt. John Falvey. After two weeks with no response, on Dec. 22, they sent another.

“All residents in the upper Lynn Canal could see this coming. And I have no idea why we’re being ignored,” said Haines Mayor Douglas Olerud. “It’s kind of crickets coming from the marine highway system. So we’ll keep pounding on that door, we’ll keep asking questions. But I don’t know when they’re going to actually start listening to us.”

Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata echoed those frustrations.

“This is what we need to be able to function as a community during the winter months. And if the goal here is to disintegrate our entire community during the winter months, after we’ve survived the pandemic, well then, doing a great job,” Cremata said.

Both mayors agreed that residents of the upper Lynn Canal cannot count on flights to Juneau during the winter months due to weather. Both pointed out that the ferry system is supposed to be the reliable alternative. However, over the last half a decade, it has become increasingly unreliable.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities oversees the Alaska Marine Highway System, and spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said they are considering multiple options to shorten service gaps this winter. That includes bringing the three-year-old, $60 million Tazlina back into service sometime near the end of January or extending the LeConte’s service for a little while.

“But they have to be mindful about when they extend then that pushes the LeConte’s return to the shipyard, the overhaul, that pushes that back. And what we don’t want is to be in a situation where if we did find, you know, something that had to be fixed, we don’t want to push that into the spring or heaven forbid the summer schedule,” McCarthy said.

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She went on to say that the marine highway system does schedule its ships to be overhauled and repaired during the winter months on purpose.

“We do try to schedule the overhauls when it’s least impactful to the communities. And, you know, that does tend to be more impactful to communities when we get into, you know, spring or summer schedules,” McCarthy said.

Olerud says it’s the lack of reliable wintertime ferry service that’s impacting upper Lynn Canal communities the hardest, and it’s forcing people to move away permanently.

“It’s already happened. And I’m sure it’s gonna continue to happen until that aspect gets fixed. Anybody that has medical issues trying to get out in those months, [it’s] not an option, with no ferry system trying to get to treatments and checkups in Juneau, Anchorage, Seattle. The extra cost and that is huge to our communities,” Olerud said.

He also said that his community is trying to bolster wintertime tourism, but with no reliable ferry system to get people to Haines in the winter, he sees the more viable option is to fly in and out of Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Though he believes that could hurt businesses in Juneau that cater to wintertime travelers.

Meanwhile, Cremata continues to press on management to improve service. But the AMHS responds by saying how difficult it is to find crew, produce certifications and how challenging it is to keep older ships in service.

“I think most people in Skagway, Alaska, and Haines Alaska, are tired of hearing why things can’t happen. These are people that get paid a good wage, good salaries to run the marine highway and to work within the marine highway. There have to be solutions,” Cremata said.

For now, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities says it should have a decision made within a couple of weeks as to when marine highway service will return to Haines and Skagway in 2022.

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