Alaska Seeks Private Operators To Fill Gaps In Winter Ferry Schedule

The people of Haines are preparing 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 provide ferry service between Juneau and four southeastern villages facing multi-month disruptions this winter from January to March.

A call for tenders 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 southern routes. -is. It does not mention a range of costs but invites bidders to make their own proposals.

The state’s Transportation Department said it was responding to concerns that a two-month gap in ferry service could cause additional hardship.

Originally we had no service plan to complete during this time, but we have received requests from communities, ”DOT regional spokesperson Sam Dapcevich told CoastAlaska. “And we are looking for a way to meet that demand. “

Hoonah Mayor Gerry Byers said when the ferry service goes down, the cost of basic necessities rises in his village of around 800 on Chichagof Island.

Everyone struggled during the pandemic, ”he said. “Now, with all the prices going up, the onset of winter is going to make it more difficult for residents to be able to live in their home community. “

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

One of the reasons is that at the end of the year the LeConte, a 47-year-old workhorse that serves villages in the southeast, goes into dry dock for a scheduled two-month overhaul that will keep it out. online until at least March.

DOT tender documents ask operators to provide regular and on-call service to connect Juneau to the communities of Hoonah, Angoon, Gustavus and Pelican during this time and possibly beyond.

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

It would not be the first time that the DOT has called on private operators to replace it. He chartered a catamaran last year to fill the voids in Lynn’s Upper Channel. And he signed contracts with ship operators Goldbelt and Allen Marine for some routes, although 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 with relatively short notice for the foreseeable future.

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

Goldbelt, Inc. does not own any vessel capable of carrying vehicles. But the chief executive of the Juneau Indigenous Urban Society said its catamarans could offer a passenger-only service.

“Goldbelt plans to make an offer,” Goldbelt CEO McHugh Pierre told CoastAlaska. I am truly delighted that the Department of Transportation and the Alaska Sea Route can finally take this step to enable routine and reliable 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 possibility of bidding, Zakary Kirkpatrick, the operator of the Sitka-based vessel, wrote in an email.

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State ferry workers are skeptical

The plan to rely more on private operators received, unsurprisingly, a cold reception from the unions representing the crew members of the maritime motorways.

I think these (maintenance) issues can be anticipated, ”said Ben Goldrich, an executive with the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association based in Juneau. His union represents about 75 licensed marine engineers who work on the state’s ferries.

“And we would like to better understand why the state is not using the resources it currently has tied to the wharf,” he added.

One of the assets is the Tazlina, a $ 60 million Alaska-class ferry built in Ketchikan. She briefly entered service in 2019 but spent most of her life shutdown due to several issues, primarily her limited range due to her day-boat setup.

Dapcevich listed a few reasons why the Tazlina will not be activated while the LeConte is out.

“Because we hadn’t planned it,” said Dapcevich. “We’re not able to outfit her quickly enough to meet the January duty schedule.”

Another reason, according to those responsible for maritime highways, is that the idling vessel does not have all of its certifications. And getting a certificate in the short term, they say, could be tedious for the third-party verifier issuing their certificate.

This $ 60 million Alaska-class ferry was recently built in Ketchikan. But the Hubbard has yet to enter service in the Alaska Sea Route system and remains moored at a private dock on Ketchikan’s Ward Cove. (Eric Stone / KRBD)

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

I’m not sure these ships exist or are available, ”Goldrich said. “Looks like the state should use its new resources in this case.”

In rural coastal villages, local leaders say they are happy that the state is completing the winter program.

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

What’s important is that the state got all this federal money for the ferries and I think we should try to use it as best as possible to help the communities survive, ”Byers said.

Alaska Class Ferry to Receive $ 15 Million Upgrade

There is progress in upgrading Tazlina’s sister ship, the Hubbard, with crew quarters that would extend the reach of this Alaska-class ferry and make it more suitable to replace the half-old ferries. century that normally crisscross the handle.

The DOT has confirmed that Vigor Alaska is the lowest bidder with just over $ 15 million to complete the work early next year. The contract has not been finalized, although representatives of the company that operates the Ketchikan shipyard say they are “cautiously optimistic” about winning the tender.

Bids for private ferry operators are expected on December 15 with the aim of finalizing the contract on December 28.

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