Knik ferry modified to add rescue capabilities

Posted: Monday, July 14, 2003

ANCHORAGE Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials are pitching a proposed Knik Arm ferry as a dual-purpose vessel to make it eligible for more types of federal funding.

Borough officials say the boat could be used for rescues as well as shuttling people and vehicles.

Support for a vessel used strictly as a ferry faltered last winter when U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens withdrew his support.

People referring to the boat formerly known as the Knik Ferry now call it the ''dual-use vessel'' or ''Knik transportation rescue boat.'' Officially, it's the even more unwieldy ''Upper Cook Inlet Cargo and Passenger Transport/Rescue Boat.''

Supporters say the bulky name is worth the hassle if it clears the way for building to begin.

'''Ferry' is so limiting,'' said Jody Simpson, a borough assemblywoman who represents the Point MacKenzie area, site of the home port of the proposed vessel. ''People just think about crossing the Inlet and coming back. It has other applications.''

The high-speed, 190-foot vessel, as described in borough specifications, now needs to do two things:

Carry up to 150 passengers, 50 cars and cargo between Anchorage and Port MacKenzie, with potential runs to Kenai and Homer, through winter ice, freezing spray and shallow water at up to 25 knots.

Serve as a rescue boat for Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, capable of plucking hundreds of passengers from Cook Inlet if an airplane goes down.

Airport officials say they welcome additional help with Cook Inlet rescues but have not been contacted about the vessel.

The idea of a Knik Arm ferry received its first serious study in 1975. More recently, talk of a multiuse vessel surfaced about six years ago, said John Duffy, borough manager.

The borough officially changed the vessel's name and mission only after Stevens, the Alaska Republican who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, withdrew his support last winter after years of commitment to the project, Duffy and several other borough officials said.

Stevens decided to pull back after he was told during a trip to Anchorage several months ago that the ferry might not be able to handle winter ice conditions. Borough officials say that is not true, citing ferries that operate efficiently in ice-laden waters of Finland and Russia.

Stevens had earmarked $5 million for the ferry in the 2003 appropriations budget, but that version of the budget did not pass. When Congress returned from the winter break, the new appropriations budget held a $5 million request for study, design and preliminary engineering for a Knik Arm bridge.

In January, Mat-Su officials traveled to Washington, D.C., to brainstorm ideas for reviving the ferry project.

It was U.S. Rep. Don Young's idea to pitch the vessel as a support craft for the airport, said Assemblywoman Simpson.

Young, who is leading the charge for a Knik Arm bridge, in the past criticized the ferry, saying it would be a temporary solution that might make it harder to get money to build the bridge.

Young changed his mind because he realized that once the bridge was built, the ferry could be used to transport people and cargo to other communities, said Steve Hansen, a spokesman for the congressman. A Knik ferry also could add an emergency response layer for Inlet rescues, Hansen said.

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