Alaska's fast ferries won't resemble rejected Canadian vessels

Posted: Thursday, March 16, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- State officials say there is little resemblance between fast ferries proposed for Alaska and those now used in the waters of British Columbia, which will be sold because of continuing problems.

British Columbia officials said Monday they will sell their problem-plagued vessels and absorb the billion-dollar debt of its marine highway system.

''The fast-ferry project was a failed experiment and we need to move on,'' B.C. Ferries Corp. Director Joy MacPhail told the Vancouver Sun. ''Today is the day we are admitting that the experiment didn't work.''

Ferry experts predicted it will be difficult to sell the province's three aluminum-hulled catamaran fast ferries, called PacifiCats. The ships are not designed to withstand high seas, where they are most economically viable, said Alan Blunden, editor of Fast Ferries International Magazine.

The Sun reported that the ships were built to fit B.C. Ferries' existing docks, which use split ramps to load simultaneously on two decks. As a result, the fast ferries all have lower freeboard and are rated only for sea conditions of 8.25 feet or less.

If ocean waves are higher than 8.25 feet, the ferries must remain docked. The rest of the industry builds to 11.5-feet significant sea conditions, which covers the rougher waters encountered on most economical fast ferry routes, Blunden said.

Alaska and other U.S. marine highway systems, the most likely market for new fast ferries, is off-limits because federal legislation prevents ships built in other countries to be purchased for use on internal U.S. routes.

The Alaska Marine Highway System wants a fast ferry to run out of Sitka by 2002. Gov. Tony Knowles is seeking funding for two more, including one to improve access to the state capital from Haines and Skagway.

Bob Doll, Southeast regional director for the Department of Transportation, said there's little similarity between what's happening with B.C.'s fast ferries and the ones planned for Panhandle waters.

The Canadians built the ferries themselves and operated them in an area where the ships covered short routes and had to go slow.

''Basically, the decision in British Columbia is a political decision based on problems B.C. Ferries have had with construction and production,'' Doll told the Juneau Empire.

DOT will use them on routes where the ships can take advantage of their high speeds, Doll said.

The Legislature holds the purse strings on DOT's plans for Southeast's first fast ferry. Sen. John Torgerson, a Kasilof Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, agreed that there's little similarity between British Columbia's experience and Alaska's.

The similarity, he said, is that Alaska's plan at this point is too vague and cost overruns seem to be popping up already.

Torgerson said he isn't opposed to fast ferries, but he wants the Alaska Marine Highway System to lower operating costs and show him a plan for ferries that works. Also, he said, the public works budget submitted by Gov. Tony Knowles includes close to $7 million for the first planned fast ferry. That's on top of the more than $30 million in federal funds already budgeted for the ship.

That's a 30 percent cost overrun and the ship is not even in the water yet, Torgerson said.

DOT only recently finished its design studies on the proposed fast ferry, said Doll. The first estimate, a bit more than $30 million, was a best guess pending the study, he said.

Doll said Torgerson's characterization of the $7 million as a cost overrun isn't fair.

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