Ferry project gets federal, state grants

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A project to create daily ferry service linking remote villages on the south side of Kachemak Bay to Homer and the highway system got some good news this week.

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a grant of nearly $788,000, and Gov. Frank Murkowski signed the 2006 state capital budget that included another $1.5 million — money that will go toward construction of a new ferry and port facilities.

Some $9 million in federal grants already has been earmarked for the $14 million Kachemak Ferry project. The latest appropriations and grants have pushed the project’s resources above $11.2 million, said Michael Beal, executive director of Seldovia Native Association.

“It was necessary for the state to help us out,” Beal said Monday. “The first monies we got did not require a local match, but later monies — which are getting more and more difficult to get — did require matching funds. I really appreciate the work of Sen. Gary Stevens and Rep. Paul Seaton and Gov. Murkowski in helping me out in this regard.”

A feasibility study is considering four possible alternatives for ferry design, as well as looking into the need for port facilities and other issues. It should be completed by late summer or early fall, Beal said.

As envisioned now, the proposed ferry would link Homer to Halibut Cove via a landing facility at Peterson Point, to Jakolof and Tutka bays at another landing facility, as well as to existing port facilities at Seldovia and Port Graham. Nanwalek residents would access the ferry through Port Graham. Beal said it was still too early to lock down exactly what the ferry or port facilities will look like.

Currently, the Alaska Marine Highway System provides regularly scheduled ferry service between Homer and Seldovia a few of times a week in the summer as part of its itinerary covering several Alaska gulf locations, including Kodiak.

However, the need for daily ferry service within Kachemak Bay is considered vital if the struggling economies of south-bay villages are to have a chance to rebound. At present, those communities face huge freight costs for food and fuel.

Seldovia once was the hub of commerce in Kachemak Bay. Homer, located on the north shore, eventually assumed that role, especially when it was linked by road to Anchorage. Since then, Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek have endured weak economies that today depend in large part on fishing and summer tourism.

Both are limited by transportation, and a daily ferry link could offer a measure of economic security, jobs and growth, SNA said.

Halibut Cove, largely an artist community, would see more visitors, too, and increase the opportunity for property development. Ferry access to Jakolof and Tutka would make reaching Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park easier as well, a boon to area tourism.

One alternative for a ferry would be a wide-beam, 100-foot-long, multipurpose vessel capable of holding two to three semi trucks and 12 to 18 vehicles and 60 to 70 passengers. A crew of four or five could overnight in Seldovia, rather than sleep aboard as is typical of larger, more heavily crewed, long-distance-run ferries in the Alaska Marine Highway system.

The above alternative might lead to elimination of Kachemak Bay as a port of call for state ferries serving other Gulf of Alaska ports, Beal said. The Alaska Marine Highway System is facing financial challenges of its own and may opt to cut service here to add ports further down the Aleutian Islands chain, he said.

“But that’s only speculation now. No one knows for sure,” he said.

Other ferry-design alternatives would be to build a more modest vessel, one able to carry passengers and assorted freight, but not vehicles, and leave the less-regular Alaska Marine Highway System service in place, Beal said.

Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Robin Taylor said Monday he thought SNA eventually would — and should — opt for a vehicle-capable design.

“It doesn’t make much sense to build a ferry capable of carrying just passengers and freight,” he said. “If you’re developing specialized fish processing or other industry and economies in the villages, you’ll need much more service than that.”

Taylor added, however, that there was no plan at this time to eliminate ferry service to the bay by the larger ocean-going ferries Tustumena and Kennicott if SNA builds a vehicle-capable ferry for the bay. He did say the service schedules of the larger vessels might be altered to mesh conveniently with the smaller inner-bay ferry.

“There would be huge savings to us and to the economy of the villages if I don’t have to bring a vessel in there with a crew of 50,” he said.

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