JUNEAU (AP) -- The state began seeking bids Wednesday for a fast ferry to run between Juneau and Sitka, a vessel designed to free the ferry system's schedule from the ''tyranny of the tides.''
The state asked eight firms to bid on construction of a 190-foot-long catamaran that can carry 35 cars and 250 passengers at up to 35 knots from Sitka to Juneau and back. The Alaska Marine Highway System's current vessels travel at about 16 knots.
The new ferry carries an estimated cost of $32 million and could travel without regard for the tidal surge in Sergius Narrows, a bottleneck that now dictates much of the ferry system's schedule, forcing longer trips and departures at odd hours.
''We are acting to free ourselves from the tyranny of the tides,'' Gov. Tony Knowles said.
The vessel is part of a long-term plan to make ferry service more convenient and useful in Southeast Alaska.
Bob Doll, the Department of Transportation's Southeast regional director, said the ferry will begin service back and forth from Sitka to Juneau seven days a week sometime in 2003. The vessel would transform an irregular nine-hour trip into a reliable 5-hour ride, Doll said.
He said the ferry should cost about $32 million, with about 90 percent of the money coming from the federal government. That was the original cost estimated by the department.
A revised estimate added about $8 million, but the Legislature refused to allocate the additional money earlier this year.
Doll said the department rewrote the proposal to fit the available dollars, leaving out extras such as spare parts, a spare engine and a bridge simulator.
The proposal also provides for an option for two additional fast ferries, but no money's been earmarked for those vessels.
The ferry would dock in Sitka at night, a disturbing prospect for the union representing ferry workers because day boats mean fewer jobs.
''At this point, the union has been pretty cautious about how we're going to look at it,'' said Darryl Tseu, regional director of The Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific.
Sitka Mayor Stan Filler, whose community is somewhat isolated from other cities in the region by the long ferry ride, applauded the prospect of fast, reliable service.
''It's going to work good four our commerce and it's going to unite our people a little more,'' Filler said.
Juneau Mayor Dennis Egan also supported the ferry, but said he was unhappy Knowles recently vetoed $1.5 million for further study of a road between Juneau to Skagway.
Knowles opposes a road connecting Juneau with the rest of the state's highway system. He proposed a transportation bond package this year that included two more fast ferries -- one for southern Southeast and another to operate in Lynn Canal between Juneau, Haines and Skagway. That proposal failed in the Legislature.
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