State's first stimulus project opens way for ferry service

Posted: Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Alaska Marine Highway System's ferries will soon be providing service to Gustavus, following the completion of a new dock this year.

The $7.7 million dock and causeway was funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, commonly known as the stimulus bill. It was the first stimulus-funded project in Alaska when work began in June, 2009.

The project makes it possible for ferries to dock in Gustavus, something they couldn't do with the 40-year old dock it replaces. The new ferry service to Gustavus will be the first new community the system has served since in started going into Prince William Sound's Chenega Bay in the 1980s, ferry managers said.

The dock will certainly bring change to Gustavus, said Mayor Paul Berry.

"I like to tell people, 'I don't know how it will change, but I know that it will,'" he said.

Ferry service and freight service with ferries or barges will likely bring additional people to Gustavus, allow locals to travel to Juneau more cheaply, and reduce freight rates, he said.

The old dock it replaces is still functioning, but has seen weight limits continually reduced in recent years.

"The state had always been reducing the vehicle weight limits, and smaller and smaller amounts of freight could be handled," Berry said.

The new dock will allow easier travel to Juneau or elsewhere. On a small plane, that costs $90 dollars, rather expensive for a family of four, he said.

"With a ferry, they could even consider doing it with their vehicle," Berry said.

Gustavus is the gateway community to Glacier Bay National Park, and most of its residents are employed at the park or in other aspects of the visitor industry. The population of 450 nearly doubles in the summer.

Several years ago, the ferry system ran a few boats to Glacier Bay's Bartlett Cove, which is connected by a road to Gustavus. The park dock cannot handle vehicle traffic, and the service was not made permanent, said Capt. John Falvey, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The first scheduled ferry trip is Nov. 23, after the final pilings are driven and decking is down, Falvey said. The project was celebrated Monday with a ribbon-cutting in Gustavus.

Gustavus will get monthly service during the winter on the run from Juneau to Pelican, but next summer it is tentatively scheduled to get two trips a week, every other week, he said.

A proposal to increase that with an additional trip on the alternate weeks is currently being reviewed, he said.

That suggestion was made during a recent teleconference hearing on next summer's draft schedules, but hasn't been decided yet, Falvey said.

The current plan for every-other-week service calls for Monday trips that are combined with a stops in the nearby Icy Strait community of Hoonah, followed by a direct trip from Auke Bay on Wednesdays.

"That gives people the opportunity move both directions during the week for doctor's visits, shopping, all those kinds of things," said Charles VanKirk, operations manager for the ferry system.

"We're coordinated very closely with the community trying to figure out what to expect, but we expect it to be relatively popular," Falvey said.

The new dock, which will be a Department of Transportation and Public Facilities multi-purpose dock, and not a dedicated AMHS dock, will enable the additional service without substantial additional cost, Falvey said.

"Gustavus is a little off the track when you are looking at just a Hoonah schedule, but it is on the way to Pelican," he said.

The dock work is being done by Seattle-based Western Marine Construction, Inc.

DOT Commissioner Leo Von Scheben attended the project's Monday ribbon cutting, and said it was accomplishing to goals of the stimulus bill.

"The construction brought good paying jobs to Gustavus and soon the community and the park service will have a safe and secure place for barges and ferries," he said in a statement provided before the event.

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