Shuttle ferry concept not popular in many Southeast communities

AMHS ferry Kennicott [Alaskan Marine Highway System] Ketchikan strait. (Photo by Jay Galvin/Flickr Creative Commons)

AMHS ferry Kennicott [Alaskan Marine Highway System] Ketchikan strait. (Photo by Jay Galvin/Flickr Creative Commons)

Still a lot of skepticism of Governor Sean Parnell’s decision to replace the proposed Alaska Class Ferry with smaller shuttle ferries.

Public comments to the House and Senate Transportation Committees Thursday seemed to depend on the size of the town.

Parnell earlier this month said the 350-foot mainliner would be scrapped in favor of shuttle-day boats.  In Juneau — where short trips up and down Lynn Canal may be more the norm than longer ferry rides – most testimony applauded Parnell’s decision.

Juneau Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathie Roemmich  said the Alaska Marine Highway System generally doesn’t need mainliners in Lynn Canal.

“These boats will not only get up and down Lynn Canal better and bring more people up and down Lynn Canal, but they’ll be smaller boats,” she said.

 Roemmich is also a member of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board and watched the Alaska Class Ferry grow from a small shuttle concept to the larger ship, now estimated to cost between $150 million and $170 million.   She said a return to shuttles puts AMHS in the right direction.

But David Wheeler of Ketchikan said communities south of Juneau need bigger ferries.

“The dayboats are great for Juneau, Haines and Skagway, but they’re not so good for the rest of the state.  There’s people that need to transport their goods, their cars to the mainland and we need more connections, not less.  The little boats aren’t going to work for us,” Wheeler said.

Haines and Skagway officials said shuttle ferries won’t work well for their communities, either.  They’re especially concerned about the design, which may have an open car deck.

Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott said that would be a big design mistake for a Lynn Canal ship.

“Commissioner Kemp, while admitting that the design for the smaller vessels is on his desk, has declined to say whether or not the design includes an open car deck.  Please out an end to our speculation. Certainly an open deck design will be much less expensive, but it will be much less reliable in the heavy seas of the Lynn Canal or even in the seas of Clarence Strait outside of Ketchikan,” Scott said. “Such a ferry will be a fair-weather vessel much like the Chenega or Fairweather, the fast ferries that cannot reliably sail in the Lynn Canal in the high seas.”

This was the second hearing the transportation committees have held on the administration’s decision to build smaller day boats, called roll-on / roll off, with vehicles loading from the ends of the vessels.

DOT Commissioner Pat Kemp told lawmakers last week that Governor Parnell directed him to find a new, less expensive design; Kemp guessed that two shuttles could be built for one Alaska Class ship.

He said the shuttle concept report will be out soon – but there may not be a design until November.  That puts the new ferry project months behind, since the Alaska Class was to go out to bid this summer.

That doesn’t bother Frank McQueary of Anchorage.  He called the state’s ferry system unfair to the rest of the state, because it competes with other transportation modes.

“As much as the ferry system needs to be a part of our statewide transportation system the reality of these burgeoning costs and inappropriate labor contracts and the positioning of the ferry system as a separate entity within DOT have led us down a path that is totally unsustainable,” he said.

McQueary said the ferry system should move to short shuttle hops instead of longer ferries to bring down costs.

Meanwhile, Transportation Commissioner Kemp, appointed by the governor to head the department in December, will come before the joint transportation committees on Tuesday for his confirmation hearing.

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Shuttle ferry concept not popular in many Southeast communities