Knik Arm transport may link peninsula to Anchorage

Ferry might stop in Kenai

Posted: Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In roughly two years, a ferry service linking Anchorage and Port MacKenzie will begin hauling passengers and vehicles across Knik Arm.

The new 2.6-mile route between Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is seen as an important step in the development of the Port MacKenzie area’s economy and as lending support for a Knik Arm Bridge.

Longer-range plans, however, see the ferry service linking Anchorage and Kenai, and eventually at Point Possession once a road is built extending the Kenai Spur Highway that now terminates around Captain Cook State Recreation Area.

At the meetings of the Tri-Borough Commission and Peninsula Mayors Conference held Thursday in Soldotna, city and borough officials were briefed by Lew Madden, the Mat-Su Borough’s project manager and owner’s representative, on the status of the twin-hulled catamaran ferry Susitna now in design and construction at Alaska Ship and Drydock Inc., in Ketchikan.

The ferry, Madden said, is designed to carry 20 vehicles, perhaps a few more “with careful packing,” and 114 passengers, though specifications call for it to have life-saving equipment for 127. Its unique design will permit it to break ice, giving the transportation system year-round capability.

“It will carry anything legal on Alaska’s highways, it just won’t carry very many of them,” Madden said.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Office of Naval Research are funding the vessel jointly.

“The Navy is very interested in this as a demonstrator for an advanced amphibious concept, so it is also spec’d for one M1A1 Tank, if you happen to have one you want to transport somewhere,” Madden said, drawing a few chuckles from the assembled municipal officials.

The $50 million, 195-foot ferry will displace 940 tons fully loaded. It is designed to lift a central barge structure out of the water hydraulically, allowing speeds of up to 20 knots on the catamaran hulls, or lower the barge for beach landings.

Madden said there are firm plans to make runs between Anchorage and Kenai in the summer when ferry service begins. That trip of about 72 miles would take hours even at 20 knots. If the borough sees its road plans come to fruition, however, a ferry port could be built at Point Possession connecting Anchorage to a Kenai Spur Highway extension leaving travelers just 40 or so miles to drive to reach Kenai, a significantly shorter trip than the drive around Turnagain Arm and over Turnagain Pass.

The borough hopes a road can be built by the end of the decade, but that will depend heavily on federal highway financing. The extension project is a high priority on the borough’s federal and state transportation wish lists. A road and a speedy ferry connection to Anchorage would stimulate development on the remote northern peninsula, borough officials have said.

It is possible the new ferry service could cover even more of Cook Inlet.

“There is a potential for a route to Homer, should that be desired and economically feasible,” Madden said. “There is also potential for servicing, probably on a charter or commission basis, other communities along the other side of the inlet.

If Pebble Mine is built, the ferry could help supply that project as well, Madden suggested.

Madden said the ferry system would examine the Kenai-Anchorage run after a year to determine its economic viability. Voyages to Kachemak Bay may be economical for some cargo runs between Homer and Anchorage, but for most travel, such trips would face the obvious competition of a good highway, Madden said.

A terminal has already been built at Port MacKenzie. A Ship Creek facility would service the ferry on the Anchorage side.

Current plans call for launch and sea trials of the new ferry around May 2008. Final outfitting and certification is set for around November 2008, but Madden said they hope to beat that mark and deliver the ferry by September before weather in the Gulf of Alaska precludes a transit until spring 2009.

Hal Spence can be reached at harold.spence@peninsulaclarion.com.



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