Homer is not only the end of the road for many highway users, it likely will be the same for passengers on the ferry Tustumena, if the state's plan for transportation is approved as expected.
Under the Department of Transportation's recently released draft plan for Southwest Alaska, Seward would be eliminated from the state ferry system route. The home port of the Tustumena would then be shifted from its longtime base at Seward to Homer.
But don't start lining up for the expected extra trips that will be available out of Homer -- the change won't take place for at least three years, the state's top transportation planner said last week.
Partly because the shift must wait on construction of the second of two "fast ferry" catamarans for Prince William Sound communities, "2005 is about the earliest it could happen," said Jeff Ottesen, planning chief for the DOT.
In response to complaints that the public had not been heard sufficiently while the plan was drafted, Ottesen and two other DOT officials explained the logic behind their plan to Seward officials at a special meeting there last week.
While some Seward officials are unhappy with the plan to leave the city without its traditional ferry service as service expands between Homer and Kodiak and possibly out the Alaska Peninsula to Unalaska, Ottesen predicts the change won't noticeably affect the economies of either Homer or Seward.
Aside from the potential increase in business by fuel suppliers and other companies that might stock up the Tustumena in Homer, and some increase in traffic through Homer, passengers riding from Kodiak to Homer will likely gain the most benefit, Ottesen said.
The motivation behind the change is largely the economics of more efficient use of the big ocean-going ferry.
"When we analyzed the traffic on the two potential links, there was 40 percent more revenue per hour on the trips to Homer than to Seward," Ottesen said.
It comes down to "carrying more people and taking fewer hours to get there," he said.
With room for passengers and about 35 cars, trucks and SUVs on the Tustumena, the 297-foot ferry takes in about $78,300 per trip, before expenses, on the Homer runs, while only $66,600 to Seward, based on year 2000 figures.
Because of the shorter route if the ferry doesn't stop at Seward, "for every three trips we make to Seward, we can make four round trips in the same amount of time" to Homer, Ottesen said.
Possibly as early as 2004, the proposed catamaran ferry would serve Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Chenega Bay and Tatitlek, while the Tustumena would serve Homer, the Kachemak Bay region, Port Lyons, Kodiak and potentially other communities in the eastern Aleutians.
Because the island is off the road system, many regular Kodiak travelers typically keep vehicles parked in Homer, Ottesen said.
Even though the Tustumena would layover in Homer under the plan, it would not likely mean much influx of crew members moving here. It is not uncommon for crew members to trade work schedules and often stay aboard for anywhere from five or six weeks to four to six months at a time and then take several months off to live somewhere else, according to Ottesen.
"So it really negates the economic benefit of people living in (Homer)," he said.
Although planners are considering another analysis of the potential impact on Seward, the draft plan is expected to be ready for approval by the DOT commissioner by June.
The key to implementation will continue to be sufficient funding for the new fast ferries that are expected to cost about $35 million each. While one has been ordered, the second still needs about $10 million in funds. The money comes from the federal government, but Ottesen noted it is part of the same pool of money that includes land highway funds.
R.J. Kelly is the managing editor of the the Homer News.
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