State, shipyard blame each other for ferry delays

Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Tension is mounting between the state and a Ketchikan shipyard hired to fix the ferry Columbia, which was damaged in a fire last year.

Frustrated by what he called a series of missed deadlines by Alaska Ship and Drydock, Alaska Marine Highway System General Manager George Capacci revamped the July ferry schedule anticipating the ship won't be delivered July 2 as promised. Delivery already is a month behind schedule.

''There's milestones they've missed,'' Capacci said. ''I think it's only prudent to think there might be more.''

However, a company spokesman insisted the shipyard would deliver the ferry by the July deadline and blamed the state for the delays.

''One-hundred percent of our efforts are going to complete the ship at the earliest possible date,'' said Doug Ward, director of shipyard development.

The shipyard was supposed to deliver the ferry May 26, but last month it asked for an extension to July 2, saying the state requested more work than was specified in the $10 million contract, which includes renovations unrelated to the fire.

Capacci agreed the state expanded the scope of the project, but said the extra work should not have taken the shipyard so long to complete.

A key issue is the ferry's switchboard, which was destroyed in the blaze. The switchboard is the central nervous system of the ship -- the brain that controls the electrical system, said Capacci, noting that without it nothing else works.

He wanted to put cleaning crews on the ferry while the renovation was in progress, to make the ship ready for passengers sooner. But without electricity, he can't do it.

''We had verbal assurances the electrical power would be back on board and the crew would move back on board the 18th of June. That didn't happen,'' Capacci said.

However, Ward accounted for the delay by saying the state Department of Transportation requested more extensive testing of the switchboard than specified in the contract.

In response to the missed deadlines to restore power, Capacci assumed the shipyard would not deliver the vessel July 2 and changed next month's ferry schedule. If the shipyard does deliver the ship by July 2, the state will revert to the previous July schedule, he said.

Meanwhile, Capacci is worried the delay has hurt the ferry system's reputation in Alaska and the Lower 48.

The Malaspina was diverted to the Bellingham-Skagway route to accommodate passengers with reservations on the Columbia. However, the smaller Malaspina cannot handle them all, and the state has turned travelers away.

''Those people we turn away are very upset,'' said Capacci, adding some ferry reservation agents were so weary of dealing with angry customers that they quit.

The state could charge the shipyard $86,740 for each day beyond the contract's May 26 deadline, he said. However, the money would go to the federal government, which funded the renovation, not to the state to compensate for revenue lost to cancellations, Capacci said.

He was still calculating the loss, but put it in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ward said he is preparing documentation to back up his argument that the state caused the delay.

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