Inlet ferry idea could float

Posted: Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A ferry from Kenai to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough or even to Anchorage?

With the Mat-Su Borough-owned M/V Susitna finally complete and wintering in Ketchikan, Mat-Su officials said the idea of the ferry transporting people across Cook Inlet is not so far fetched.

"The ferry is here. It's going to happen," said Lewis Madden, owner's representative for the ship.

The only hurdle now is where it's going to be docked.

The high-tech vessel is a SWATH -- small waterplane area, twin hull ship -- that can convert into a landing craft.

"Imagine yourself waterskiing on top of submarines," Madden explained about the design of the ship.

It can handle seas five times its size, he said.

"It's a very stable ship," Madden added.

The M/V Susitna also has some "firsts" that rival the Titanic.

"It's the world's first SWATH icebreaker," Madden said. "One of the world's first high-speed SWATHs," and "one of the world's first convertible crafts."

"It's a very, very complicated ship," he said, and one of most complicated ships completed in the last 100 years.

The design means that the ferry does not necessarily need a dock to deliver its capacity of 136 passengers.

"In the summer we can go up to ramps or beaches," to service passengers and vehicles, he said.

In the winter and with no current landings for the vessel, the ferry could only service passengers without vehicle transportation. The vessel can carry up to 20 vehicles.

And with a maximum speed of 20 knots, the ship could get from Kenai to the Mat-Su in some four hours, he said.

But, "like any ship it can provide faster service by going alongside a pier," he said.

The Mat-Su Borough had agreements to dock at a landing in Anchorage as of 2006 but plans changed.

"It's somewhat disappointing," he said. There were a "set of designs arranged and done and then they changed their agreement."

The Mat-Su Borough is working on its own design for a landing, preferring the single barge in Port Mackenzie.

That's where the City of Kenai and the Kenai Peninsula Borough come in.

Both Kenai City Council and the borough assembly recently approved resolutions supporting the Mat-Su Borough's idea of a public ferry between Kenai, Anchorage, Tyonek and Port Mackenzie.

"It would generate economic development and promote tourism," said borough assemblyman and former Kenai council member Hal Smalley at the assembly's Oct. 12 meeting about the M/V Susitna. "The City of Kenai supported it (the resolution) unanimously. It's a business potential that this is supporting and encouraging. Through this we're encouraging discussions of this."

Jon Faulkner, co-owner of Kenai Landing who also operates Land's End Resort in Homer, is interested in having the ferry dock at his site in Kenai.

Kenai Landing is an industrially zoned commercial waterfront and "we would like to offer the alternative or option of landing there," Faulkner said.

Faulkner put together his own demand analysis of a Cook Inlet ferry through interviewing patrons and tourists at his establishment.

"The ferry presents a very viable alternative to people who don't want to drive that road," he said. And Faulkner's customers told him they were willing to pay some $40 one-way for that service.

"We'd like to see the ferry come to the borough whether it's on our property or anyone else's property," he said.

Madden said that the ferry is not a moneymaking operation.

"We're actually not looking to make a profit on this," he said. "The purpose of the ferry is to promote the economy."

The Cook Inlet ferry idea is nothing new but it has taken about a decade to come to fruition, with the Mat-Su Borough receiving funding from the Office of Naval Research.

Madden said the multi-million dollar vessel's design was funded by the Mat-Su Borough yet built by the Office of Naval Research to gather data on the vessel's structure and performance.

The Navy is paying the $70 million cost of the ferry construction, but the Mat-Su Borough will pay for operations and maintenance for its life of 20 years. The cost of engineering, designing and outfitting the craft is $8 million, 13 percent of which the borough is paying, with the rest coming from the Federal Transit Authority.

Madden said the M/V Susitna should be ready for service next spring and summer even if it's docking on a beach in Tyonek or a boat ramp in Kenai.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.



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