Ferry officials seek input in long-range planning process

a state ferry
The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry LeConte sails north in Scow Bay near Petersburg Monday, June 15, 2020. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The Alaska Marine Highway System has too many old ships, and too few people to operate them. In a virtual open house Tuesday, ferry officials kicked off a 20-year plan for rebuilding and modernizing Alaska’s Marine Highway.

Marine director Craig Tornga summarized ongoing issues facing the state’s ferry system, including difficulty with crew recruitment and retention. 

“All summer long, we’ve had a few no-sail days across the fleet due to crew shortage just because we didn’t have enough personnel to meet the manning requirements of our certificate of inspection from the Coast Guard,” Tornga said. “So that continues to plague us.”

Aging vessels are another problem for the ferry system, which currently operates five vessels over 45 years old. In August, AMHS released an interim plan outlining capital and operations improvements through 2026. The plan includes building three new vessels, including one to replace the 59-year-old Tustumena and a hybrid or electric vessel to replace the Lituya. 

“These reliability issues are due to age, and they’re not going to improve for us until we build replacement vessels,” Tornga said.

Tornga said that the trajectory of the 60-year-old Matanuska is still in question.  

“Since I’ve joined, we’ve held meetings for the Coast Guard, and we don’t have a determination yet to the extent of the upgrades to retain (the Matanuska’s Safety of Life at Sea certification) until we know the condition and the safety of the hull,” Tornga said.

Consultant Kristen Kissinger, who is working with AMHS on the long-range plan, emphasized that data and recommendations from communities will guide this stage of the planning process. 

“Really having a database of just all the information about what kinds of things are present in a community, what a community might need, what are the gaps, what’s missing, and what that means for how they use ferry service,” she said.

She pointed attendees of the open house to an online survey open through Nov. 7 and encouraged them to attend an Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board meeting, as well as to submit written comments

Work to develop the long-range plan will continue through mid-2024, and ferry users are encouraged to share input throughout the process.

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