Officials float idea of using Susitna in AMHS

JUNEAU (AP) — While the Matanuska-Susitna Borough tries to find a way to get its innovative $78 million ferry Susitna into operation, it sits unused at a Ketchikan dock at a cost of $1.4 million a year.


Now, some members of the Juneau legislative delegation and others are wondering why the boat the public paid for can’t be used in the Alaska Marine Highway System.

“Every time I go to Ketchikan and see that poor ferry just sitting there, I think there ought to be some way to utilize it,” said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.

The AMHS fleet is mostly older vessels, but it also has some newer, albeit problem-plagued fast ferries. Egan said he wasn’t suggesting a specific run for the 195-foot Susitna, but said it might be able to play a variety of roles.

“Hey, it’s not an ocean-going ship, but it sure can travel the Inside Passage,” he said, and might be used in Prince William Sound as well.

Egan and other members of the Juneau delegation recently met with Mike Neussl, deputy commissioner for marine operations with the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, to discuss the possibility.

At a Marine Transportation Advisory Board meeting last week in Skagway, Juneau resident Chip Thoma made a similar suggestion, saying the AMHS staff ought to develop a report on whether it was possible for the state to use the Susitna, and what the costs might be.

“I think that’s a real opportunity for the Marine Highways to at least develop a paper to see if there are any opportunities there,” he said.

Neussl said bringing the Susitna into the AMHS fleet presented a number of potential problems, including training crews for the specialized vessel, and figuring out how to get its unique ramps to match Alaska ports’ own ramps and docks.

Complicating the issue is that somebody else owns it, and the state can’t afford to invest substantial sums in reconfiguring docks or additional crew training for a temporary ferry.

“It’s really not our decision how or when that vessel gets used,” Neussl said.

Mat-Su Borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said the borough has considered multiple options for use of the Susitna until it can get dock facilities built on both sides of Knik Arm and it can be put into regular service.

She said the borough probably wouldn’t rule out use by the state ferry system in the interim.

“We do need to find a use for it,” she said.

At a recent meeting, she said, a borough port commission member suggested the possibility of using the Susitna to expand the Alaska Marine Highway System.

“If the state had it, they’d run it from Homer to Kodiak, nobody runs from Homer, Kenai, Anchorage, Tyonek. That’s where this boat’s going to shine,” said David Cruz, the longest serving port commissioner and a ferry advocate.

One option the borough is now considering is using its available money to build a pedestrian-only dock at Port MacKenzie, which could later be expanded to a vehicle dock when additional money becomes available.

Building the pedestrian dock would give the borough a place to store the Susitna, but that would still cost more than continuing to store it in Ketchikan, the assembly was told.

Sullivan said she rode the Susitna on a trial run earlier this year and was thrilled by how well it handled.

“It’s a fabulous ship,” she said.

The Susitna is already painted the same blue as the AMHS fleet, it was noted at the MTAB meeting.

State officials appeared reluctant to try to use the Susitna, while not ruling it out entirely.

“It’s just not that easy,” Neussl said. “We could find ourselves doing an awful lot of work and using an awful lot of staff time, and it may just go back to its original owners and its original intended purpose.”

The board was also warned the unique vessel would likely require some specific U.S. Coast Guard approvals for passenger transport as well, and it was not clear how long it would take to obtain them.

The idea if taking the Susitna into the state ferry system resulted in some interesting board discussion, but no strong support for using the Susitna.

“I’m not an advocate for adopting that orphan,” said MTAB member Robert Venables of Haines.

Egan is in Ketchikan today for a Southeast Conference meeting. The Susitna was built there at Alaska Ship & Drydock, and remains there waiting for the Mat-Su Borough to take possession of it.

“It’s an incredible ship,” Egan said. “Seventy-eight million dollars and it’s just sitting there.”