State says it’s prepping Tazlina, hiring catamarans to bolster Southeast Alaska’s winter ferry schedule

A ferry in a foggy mountainous area
The M/V Tazlina rounds Point Retreat on its way to Juneau on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Jay Beedle)

The Alaska Department of Transportation recently signed contracts with at least two vendors to run catamarans to Southeast villages. But officials in coastal communities aren’t sure the passenger-only vessels will be able to meet residents’ immediate needs.

In Gustavus, City Manager Tom Williams says the community doesn’t have a ferry scheduled until the third week in March and has been requesting a state ferry in coming weeks.

We’ve had a really difficult winter, lots of snow, heavy snow loads on roofs, buildings that have collapsed,” Williams said on Wednesday.

He said right now residents rely on the marine highway’s ferries to shuttle their vehicles back and forth from Juneau for lumber and other essentials for repairs.

“Without the ferry they’re not going to be able to do that,” he said.

Not to mention, one of the town’s grocers no longer runs a landing craft to and from Juneau’s Costco and a lot of foodstuffs are being flown in on expensive air freight, he added.

Gustavus officials have been part of a chorus of officials asking for the Alaska Marine Highway System to activate the idle Tazlina ferry.

DOT contracts with Goldbelt, Inc. and Allen Marine Tours for passenger ferries

But the Department of Transportation says the $60 million ferry won’t be ready until early next month. In the meantime, it’s signed a number of contracts with private vendors through March.

On Wednesday, transportation officials confirmed that Juneau’s for-profit Native corporation Goldbelt, Inc. will be paid about $5,400 for a round trip circuit between Juneau, Hoonah and Gustavus. Williams said his city wasn’t notified.

That’s news to me,” he said of the contracted ferries. “I appreciate the effort. But I don’t know that that’s going to be workable for us.”

He said he’s concerned that a passenger-only service would have limited ability to bring in freight like building supplies and groceries that Gustavus residents will need to get through the winter.

DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said private vendors were not the agency’s first choice. But that the ferry LeConte has to enter the Ketchikan shipyard for its annual overhaul to be ready for the busier summer months.

We would prefer to sail with our vessels and with our crews,” she said. “That’s our first and foremost, that’s how we prefer to do it.”

Recently, the agency said some of the Tazlina’s certificates had lapsed delaying its ability to sail. Now it said it’s having trouble finding enough mariners for the 14-person crew. 

We actually don’t have people sitting around at all,” McCarthy said. “In fact, everyone who wants to work is working right now.”

Ferry unions say $60m Tazlina should’ve been floated sooner

That’s brought skepticism from union representatives who point out that most of the fleet is tied up or being overhauled.

Shannon Adamson heads the local branch of Masters, Mates & Pilots which represents the marine highway’s deck officers. 

If AMHS says that they don’t have enough crew to operate the Tazlina, then their crew shortage is much more severe than they’ve led anyone else to believe,” she said Wednesday.

The three ferry unions recently signed an agreement to allow private ferries to call into Haines and Skagway at least until the end of January while the state readies the Tazlina. In a rare joint statement, the three unions blasted AMHS management for not having the Tazlina ready to take up the slack sooner.

“Repeatedly we have been told the Tazlina is the ready reserve ship, so why was she not prepared to take up this emergency service?“ wrote Ben Goldrich of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association in a Jan. 9 statement. “We believe these vessels should be better prepared in the future.”

Adamson told CoastAlaska in a phone interview the ferry’s winter gaps are the product of poor planning at the top.

The fact that contracting out is something that has become more and more common — in the three unions’ opinion — it generally can be traced back to deferred maintenance and poor management decisions,” she said.

DOT reveals details of contracts

CoastAlaska had requested details of the tenders signed or being finalized for supplemental service.

On Jan. 11, DOT finalized a contract with Goldbelt for a scheduled circuit between Juneau, Hoonah and Gustavus for $5,390 per trip. It will also sail between Juneau, Tenakee Springs and Angoon for $6,860 per trip.

Earlier this month DOT finalized a contract with Sitka-based Allen Marine Tours to run a passenger vessel between Juneau, Hoonah and Pelican for $7,999 per trip.

In a statement, the agency says it’s finalizing contracts for on-call passenger service with the same two vendors as well.

Goldbelt would be paid $6,305 for a round trip between Juneau, Haines and Skagway. Allen Marine would be paid $9,999 for a round trip between Juneau and Sitka. A third circuit calling in Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg would cost the state $11,499.

Missing from the announcement was any tender for a freight-capable vendor. DOT had put out an invitation for bids for vehicle and freight service and at least one firm already running a supply vessel between Juneau and Hoonah has indicated its interest.

Pelican ferry rep says winter service unexpected

The chartered passenger service has been designed with apparently little coordination with destination communities. Norm Carson sits on tiny Pelican’s chamber of commerce and serves on the state’s newly formed marine highway operations board.

He’s long been the point-man for the small village’s ferry service. He said Pelican officials agreed to forego ferry service in January and February altogether to save the state money.

“Rather than bring a $27,000 ferry out there ferry run,” Carson told CoastAlaska. “We said, ‘We’ll go without and save the AMHS some money.’” 

The Tazlina isn’t an option for that village because its design is incompatible with Pelican’s dock.

Carson says passenger service in the winter would be welcome as an affordable alternative to air travel. But he said the real needs for Pelican are a vehicle-capable ferry in March and then regular service in the summertime when the fish processor is running and for people to move vehicles and freight.

“It would help to a point,” Carson said of the private catamarans this winter. “But it’s not going to be the answer in the long run.”

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, has been pushing for the Tazlina ferry’s return to timely service for weeks now. He said the private contracts appear to be fair market value prices. But his panhandle constituents say they need the ability to move people and freight.

“It’s not one or the other,” Kiehl said Wednesday. “And so we really have to get the Tazlina or some other vessel that can move a vehicle full of freight, as well as a bunch of school kids or a family to medical appointments.”

Marine Highway officials say they anticipate the Tazlina ferry should be in action by the first week in February. But as of Thursday afternoon, none of the sailings — whether by private catamaran or state ferry — have appeared on the state’s reservations system.

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

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