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Tustumena delays tough on Aleutian communities

Posted: August 19, 2013 - 8:31pm

Prolonged repairs to the M/V Tustumena have made for a challenging travel summer in the southwestern communities the state ferry typically serves.

One of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s oldest vessels, the 49-year-old Tustumena has been dry-docked at Seward Ship’s Drydock Inc. just outside of the city since last November. The ship is undergoing capital improvement repairs paid for by federal highway funds.

“We’re hopeful (the Tustumena) will be back on-line by October, that’s why we cancelled sailings through September,” AMHS spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said.

First scheduled to return to service in late April, additional repairs delayed the Tustumena’s return date several times into July. The latest delay is due to incorrect steel work that needs to be redone, according to an AMHS statement.

The M/V Kennicott has taken on some of the “Rusty Tusty’s” workload, but scheduled ferry arrivals along the Aleutians are down to one or two per month in some ports this summer.

Woodrow said the likelihood of discovering additional work that needs to be done is calculated into every improvement project. Most projects see workloads increased by less than 10 percent. In the Tustumena’s case, newly discovered repair work has grown the project by 18 percent, he said.

While no one is to blame for the first rounds of added work, Woodrow said the repairs that need to be redone are costing the Seward Drydock.

“Every day since July 13 the shipyard has actually been incurring liquidated damages of $20,000 per day,” he said.

AMHS originally estimated the Tustumena project to total $6.2 million, Woodrow said. Because the shipyard bid the project so low, only about $5 million has actually been spent.

The state is legally bound to accept the low bid on any project, Woodrow said. He added that the Seward shipyard has completed many small projects for AMHS in the past, but this is the first capital improvement project it has undertaken in more than 10 years.

When the Tustumena returns to service will largely depend on how long it takes to get steel for the repairs from the Lower 48, Woodrow said.

The delays have hampered construction projects along the Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula in addition to limiting passenger travel.

Aleutians East Borough Communications Manager Laura Tanis wrote in an email that electrical work to the small boat harbor in Sand Point has been delayed because materials can’t be shipped on the ferry. She also wrote that a bridge repair project in False Pass has been slowed.

False Pass City Clerk Chris Emrich said the bridge is on the road to the airport and the work has been delayed nearly three months on the state project because shipping materials via barge service is several times more expensive than on the ferry.

“We had one maintenance man who was done with his contract (with the city of False Pass) and he had no way to get his truck and his stuff home and he lives in the Interior,” Emrich said.

He added that the city has had to hold off on purchasing new snow removal equipment because of the added cost to ship it on a private barge service from Homer. Emrich said moving two pieces of equipment from Homer to False Pass on the state ferry would cost about $5,000 — about $20,000 less than on a barge.

In addition to work challenges, he said flights out of the area are booked up like never before. Emerich said some flight services are full up to three weeks out for flights to Anchorage.

Designs for a new Tustumena are being drawn up, Woodrow said, but funding for a new ship will take years to secure.

While Woodrow acknowledges the delays have been troublesome for affected communities, he said everyone agrees that having a safe and seaworthy Tustumena for years to come is the ultimate priority.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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