State says it’s gearing up Tazlina and leasing catamarans to bolster Southeast Alaska winter ferry schedule
The Alaska Department of Transportation recently signed contracts with at least two vendors to operate catamarans in Southeast villages. But officials in coastal communities are unsure whether the passenger-only vessels will be able to meet the immediate needs of residents.
In Gustavus, City Manager Tom Williams said the community doesn’t have a scheduled ferry until the third week of March and has requested a state ferry in the coming weeks.
“We had a really tough winter, lots of snow, heavy loads of snow on the roofs, buildings that came down,” Williams said Wednesday.
He said that right now, residents rely on Sea Highway ferries to shuttle their vehicles from Juneau for lumber and other essentials for repairs.
“Without the ferry, they won’t be able to do this,” he said.
Not to mention, one of the grocers in town no longer runs a landing craft to and from Juneau’s Costco and many foodstuffs are flown in by expensive air freight, he added.
The servants of Gustavus were part of a chorus of servants asking the Alaska Marine Highway System to activate the inactive Tazlina ferry.
DOT contracts with Goldbelt, Inc. and Allen Marine Tours for passenger ferries
But the Department of Transportation says the $60million ferry won’t be ready until early next month. Waiting for, he signed a number of contracts with private suppliers until March.
On Wednesday, transportation officials confirmed that the for-profit Aboriginal company Goldbelt, Inc. of Juneau would receive about $5,400 for a round trip between Juneau, Hoonah and Gustavus. Williams said his city was not notified.
“This is news to me,” he said of the contracted ferries. “I appreciate the effort. But I don’t know if it’s going to be feasible for us.
He said he’s worried a passenger-only service will have limited capacity to carry cargo like building materials and groceries that Gustavus residents will need to get through the winter.
DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said private providers were not the agency’s first choice. But that the LeConte ferry must enter the Ketchikan shipyard for its annual overhaul to be ready for the busier summer months.
“We would rather sail with our ships and with our crews,” she said. “That’s our priority, that’s how we prefer to do it.”
Recently, the agency said some of the Tazlina’s certificates had expired, delaying its ability to sail. Now he says he is struggling to find enough sailors for the crew of 14.
“In fact, we don’t have people sitting at all,” McCarthy said. “In fact, everyone who wants to work is working right now.”
Ferry unions say $60m Tazlina should have been launched sooner
This has been met with skepticism from union representatives who point out that most of the fleet is immobilized or undergoing overhaul.
Shannon Adamson leads the local branch of Masters, Companions and Pilots representing the sea route deck officers.
“If AMHS says they don’t have enough crew to operate the Tazlina, then their crew shortage is far more serious than they let on,” she said Wednesday.
The three ferry unions recently signed an agreement allowing private ferries to call at Haines and Skagway until at least the end of January while the state prepares the Tazlina. In one rare joint statement, the three unions blamed the AMHS management for not preparing the Tazlina to take over sooner.
“Repeatedly we have been told that the Tazlina is the standby ship ready, so why was she not ready to take on this emergency duty? wrote Ben Goldrich of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association in a Jan. 9 statement. “We believe these ships should be better prepared in the future.”
Adamson told CoastAlaska in a phone interview that the ferry’s winter shortcomings are the product of poor planning at the top.
“The fact that outsourcing has become more and more common – in the view of the three unions – is generally attributable to delayed maintenance and poor management decisions,” she said.
DOT reveals contract details
CoastAlaska had requested details of offers signed or being finalized for the additional service.
On January 11, DOT finalized a contract with Goldbelt for a regular 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, the DOT finalized a contract with Sitka-based Allen Marine Tours to operate a passenger vessel between Juneau, Hoonah and Pelican for $7,999 per trip.
In a statement, the agency said it is also finalizing on-call passenger service contracts with the same two providers.
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 calling circuit Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg would cost the state $11,499.
The announcement lacked a tender for a supplier capable of transporting freight. The DOT had issued a tender for vehicle and cargo service and at least one company already operating a supply vessel between Juneau and Hoonah has expressed interest.
Pelican ferry rep says winter service unexpected
Charter passenger service was designed with seemingly little coordination with destination communities. Norm Carson sits on the tiny Pelican Chamber of Commerce and sits on the state’s board of directors. Newly formed Sea Routes Operations Commission.
He was the go-to man for the small village ferry service for a long time. He said Pelican officials agreed to forego ferry service altogether in January and February to save state money.
“Rather than bring a $27,000 ferry over there,” Carson told CoastAlaska. “We said, ‘We’re going to do without it and save AMHS money. “”
The Tazlina is not an option for this village because its design is incompatible with the Pelican wharf.
Carson says winter passenger service would be welcome as an affordable alternative to air travel. But he said Pelican’s real needs are a vehicle-capable ferry in March and then regular service in the summer when the fish processor is operating and people are moving vehicles and freight.
“That would help up to a point,” Carson said of privateer catamarans this winter. “But that won’t be the long-term solution.”
Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, has been pushing for the return of the Tazlina ferry to timely service for weeks now. He said the private contracts appear to be priced at fair market value. But his begging constituents say they need to be able to move people and freight.
“It’s not one or the other,” Kiehl said Wednesday. “And so we really need to get the Tazlina or some other vessel capable of carrying a vehicle full of cargo, and also a group of school children or a family to medical appointments.”
Marine Highway officials say they expect the Tazlina ferry to be in service by the first week of February. But as of Thursday afternoon, none of the crossings — whether by private catamaran or state ferry — have appeared on the state reservation system.