Alaska Marine Highway System plans for 3 new ferries in 4 years

a ferry in the dark
The M/V Tustumena pulls away from Kodiak on Jan. 11, 2020. The Tustumena’s replacement is already underway and will cost $250 million. (Kavitha George/KMXT)

Federal transportation dollars are pouring into the Alaska Marine Highway System. It’s saving the state money now. But Alaska’s ferry board is looking far into the future and helping to draft a 20-year plan. It includes three new ferries in the next four years.

“The purpose of this whole plan is really to guide us, you know, in our capital and operating investments going all the way out through 2045,” said Craig Tornga, Alaska’s marine director.

He was speaking with the board that makes recommendations to the state during a lengthy meeting, July 14. He said the plan seeks to standardize the fleet and terminals for efficiency.

The state is working with marine engineering firm Elliot Bay Design Group out of Seattle. The first phase of the draft plan is set to be shared with the Alaska Legislature in August.

The long-range plan lists many changes that are needed before the ferry service can be reliable once again.

The Alaska marine highway connects 33 coastal communities. But services and funding have steadily declined over the past decade.

Ferry board members have discussed improving the system since the board was created by the Legislature and started meeting two years ago. At their last meeting, members like Wanetta Ayers emphasized the importance of the marine highways.

“I’ve sat in many, many community meetings, and heard over and over and over again from people about the importance of the ferry system in terms of their medical travel,” Ayers said. “That many people cannot get on a small plane to get out of their communities to get to the next level of medical care.”

But passengers likely won’t see better service until more ferry workers are hired and the aging fleet is improved. Crew shortages, especially licensed crew, continue to be a problem. AMHS hired only 12 new people last year and lost 11.

The plan seeks to keep eight vessels serving 35 ports of call over the next three years, and one vessel in maintenance. However, only six ferries are running this summer. There are no reserve ferries on standby for emergencies or unplanned maintenance needs. And that will continue to create reliability issues until the fleet size is increased, the plan states. That’s supposed to happen in the next few years. Three new ferries are to be added to the fleet by the end of 2027. One of them will be a hybrid model, and one will be electric.

Two new ferries will replace two 60-year-old ferries – the ocean-class Tustumena and the mainliner Matanuska. The Tustumena Replacement, TRV as it’s called, is already underway and will cost $250 million. It will be the state’s first diesel-battery powered hybrid ferry. Like the Tustumena, it would also serve communities in Kodiak, Southcentral and Southwest Alaska.

With federal funds, an all-electric ferry will replace the 20-year-old dayboat Lituya, which is the state’s smallest ferry, serving a route between Ketchikan and Metlakatla. The Lituya could then be used on a short run somewhere else, yet to be decided.

Before the new ferries are done, the Tazlina is scheduled to return to service after crew quarters are added. The ferry, along with its sister ship, the Hubbard was built five years ago in Ketchikan for $60 million. But they didn’t include crew quarters, limiting them to short day trips. After construction, it was decided that crew quarters were needed. The Hubbard got those quarters for $15 million and started serving the Lynn Canal in May.

The state’s plan calls for the Tazlina to be back in service sometime next year.

The next phases of the long-range plan will look at demographics and demand for all marine highway communities and seek input from stakeholders. A draft of the 20-year plan is expected to be finalized next summer. Board member Norm Carson encouraged the engineers to get data from locals. He’s lived in Pelican on Chichagof Island since 1967 and said the population fluctuates.

“The community probably at least doubles in size between April and say, October,” said Carson. “So, what you see on a census data is not nearly accurate, get a hold of myself, the mayor or somebody like that for more information.”

Juliette Lehman with the engineering firm assured the board that getting local feedback is part of the process. She said they’ll be checking with stakeholders to make sure the data in the plan meshes with reality.

“To receive input from community members to ensure that the data set is a collection of information that is accurate and up to date,” Lehman said. “Like you said, maybe some of our sources don’t have the nuance that a community member would have firsthand knowledge of.”

Federal dollars are expected to continue coming to the state’s marine highway system through the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act. The state of Alaska spent just $7.5 million operating ferries last year. That’s over $100 million less than it spent in 2015 when it budgeted $120 million on ferry operations. That’s because the federal government is sending transportation money throughout the country – including nearly $97 million to Alaska ferries last year.

Federal dollars for ferries are expected to continue coming to the state through the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act. About $1 billion is allocated to ferry projects in the country with routes greater than 50 miles, which places Alaska in the position to get a lot of the funds.

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