Legislators debate fast ferry option for improved Juneau access

Posted: Sunday, March 12, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- After five years and $5 million in studies, the state Department of Transportation decided the best alternative for improving access to Alaska's capital was a road built along the east side of Lynn Canal to Skagway.

But when Gov. Tony Knowles decided in January that Alaskans could not afford the $240 million price tag, he offered a $35 million alternative: a 200-foot fast ferry capable of carrying 30-35 cars and 250 passengers.

A fast ferry with a running speed of 32 knots is twice as fast as current ferries. It would move additional cars and come on line within just in three years, Knowles said.

Environmentalists hailed the decision to keep cars out of the Berners Bay watershed, a haven for wildlife, kayakers and campers. Civic leaders in Skagway and Haines did too, because they see the road as a threat to local business.

For everybody else, fast ferries are at best a mixed blessing.

''Fast ferries are a cruel joke,'' said Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell. He said they will tease residents with the possibility of more capacity but will stay parked in bad weather and carry less freight.

Former Juneau Mayor Jamie Parsons said the 35-car ferries never came up in DOT's study, which looked at fast ferries carrying more than 100 cars. He derides Knowles concept as ''toy'' ferries.

Rep. Bill Hudson, R-Juneau, said fast ferries will attack a bottleneck in Juneau but only if the state continues summer operations of the Malaspina between Juneau, Skagway and Haines.

The 408-foot, 88-car Malaspina reflects what's wrong with the current system: The ship is 37 years old, it requires a crew of 38, compared to 10 for the fast ferry, and will require ever-increasing repairs to keep operating.

Last summer the Malaspina cost $3.7 million to operate on the system's second most lucrative run and earned $3.2 million.

Bob Doll, former ferry general manager and now the DOT Southeast regional director, said crews on the Malaspina cost $21,158 per day and fuel costs $2,011. He estimates the fast ferry crewing would cost $4,392 with fuel costs of $2,515.

''It is savings of that kind, of that dimension, that impel us toward shuttle service,'' Doll said.

Hudson is frustrated that the state spent millions exploring the road if it had no chance of being built, and he's particularly incensed that the department isn't considering building parts of the road to shorten the water miles to Haines and Skagway.

''Where's that kind of thinking into this whole thing?'' Hudson asked. ''Why do we say, 'We prefer a road, but we can't afford a whole road, so we're going to give you a little fast ferry.'''

Fast ferries don't address a second major frustration for Hudson: the cost of traveling.

A round-trip ticket to Skagway for an 18-foot vehicle costs $156. Adult fares are $64 roundtrip. Children age 2-11 ride for $34. That adds up to $352 for a family of four.

Hudson and his wife traveled by camper to the Lower 48 last year.

''The cost from here to Skagway was almost a third of the cost to drive all the way down to the U.S. border out of Bellingham,'' Hudson said.

The immediate future of Alaska fast ferries lies with legislators who hold the state's purse strings. Knowles wants to pay for the boat in a $350 million bond package containing 11 statewide transportation projects. The state would pay back the bonds with federal highway money.

Sen. John Torgerson, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the ferries are the only part of the proposal he likes -- but only if they lower overall state subsidies for the ferry system.

''You're not going to increase the subsidy for the marine highway system, period,'' Torgerson said. ''It's not going to happen.''

He recognizes the shortcomings of the current fleet and is eager to replace, not supplement, current ferries.

''Now the plan is to go out and build vessels and not replace the old ones, keep everything status quo, but add? That's just not going to happen,'' Torgerson said.

Doll expects fast ferries to save money. The smaller boats will give them ''scalability,'' the flexibility to use an appropriate vessel for traffic needed.

For Juneau, that could mean running just the fast ferry in winter when demand is down. In summer, that could mean running the Malaspina daily and the fast ferry three times per week.

But Taylor said the administration is promising too much and panned the fast ferries in general.

''It will only operate during periods of good weather,'' Taylor said. ''They have significant problems with wake. There are public safety problems and property damage problems. That's why the high speed ferry in Puget Sound that only carries passengers is under court injunction and can't operate.''

Doll does not expect fast ferry wakes to be a problem in Lynn Canal because it is not as narrow as the waterways in Puget Sound.

Weather is another story. The fast ferries are seaworthy in any conditions on the ferry routes, Doll said, but passengers would get sick or jostled in the worst weather. He said fast ferries will run 98 percent of the time and stay parked 2 percent.

''That's one of the tradeoffs that one has to endure for high-speed travel,'' Doll said. ''If people are unwilling to accept that, the concept won't work.''

Taylor and Hudson said 17 expensive water miles could be cut out if the state extend Juneau's northern road by two miles and built a ferry terminal at Cascade Point. Goldbelt Inc., Juneau's urban Native corporation, owns the land and is eager to develop it.

Moving the terminal north would let the Malaspina make two trips per day and cover every request for service north, allowing the rest of the fleet to increase service south of Juneau, Taylor said.

Dennis Poshard, the transportation department's liaison to the Legislature, said moving a terminal to Cascade Point would shave only a half hour off the running time of fast ferries, while raising environmental concerns adding an expensive new project. Also, the department would have to figure out how to move passengers traveling through Juneau without cars from the existing Auke Bay terminal to Cascade Point.

Taylor sees another answer for the hesitation -- the reluctance of the Knowles administration to challenge environmentalists.

''I think your chances are better of seeing Tony Knowles shooting wolves with a machine gun out of a helicopter than you are of seeing one inch of new road built in Southeast Alaska to make this system work,'' Taylor said.

Hudson will hold a hearing this week on Juneau access.

''We're not going to turn down a fast ferry, because we need that added capacity and convenience,'' Hudson said. ''But I hope the department will at least let us know what the costs are with these other modified elements.''

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