Seldovia’s had its share of economic knocks in recent years, then along came new troubles when the Alaska Marine Ferry service in and out of the Kachemak Bay village was reduced to a third of its normal schedule.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblyman Mako Haggerty wants to send a strong message to the governor’s office: Not acceptable.
Haggerty drafted a resolution passed by the Borough Assembly at its last meeting, Sept. 17 in Homer. The resolution spelled out the hardship and stated: “the assembly formally requests the governor and Legislature to act swiftly to develop a long-term solution to the problems that faces the Alaska Marine Highway System and work to provide uninterrupted service to Alaska’s coastal communities.”
The M/V Tustumena was sent to a Seward shipyard in November 2012. Numerous delays kept it from service after it failed inspections.
“Right there is a real issue,” Haggerty said. “All the work in the Seward boat yard and it couldn’t pass inspection. It wasn’t meeting the Marine Highway System standards.”
The Tusty’s been worked hard over the past nearly 50 years. It was one of Alaska’s first ferries, built the same year as the 1964 Earthquake. It has served Seldovia for 30 years.
When it was taken off the schedule, the M/V Kennicott came into service, but made only a third of the trips Homer, Seldovia and Kodiak Island had come to depend upon. Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins counted 18 stops on the Port and Harbor calendar between June and mid-September.
“Normally, they get 10 stops a week,” Haggerty said. “Ferries aren’t a luxury – they are a necessary part of the Alaska transportation system like roads or highways or airports. They need to be kept maintained.”
Seldovia’s City Manager, Tim Dillion, serves as chairman for the Alaska Municipal League’s transportation committee. He plans on giving a presentation at Tuesday night’s meeting in Homer. Seldovia wrote a similar resolution to Gov. Sean Parnell, as did the Kodiak Island Borough.
The essence of Haggerty’s resolution reminded the governor of the many ways communities off the road system depend on ferries. For example, ferry service for schools and their athletic programs costs much less than airfare and places them in a financial bind when unavailable. Services and goods as well as people are transported via ferry.
Seldovia Police Chief Chad Haller said if there are further delays in the Tusty’s readiness, it could make for a devastating winter for folks in Seldovia.
“That’s the only transport in and out for a lot of people. They make their annual trip shopping for groceries and their needs and bring it over in their vehicles,” Haller said.
In a typical summer, tourists load their vehicles on the ferry and come for a multi-day visit in the scenic, historic village. Summer residents also bring their vehicles along. Not this summer, Haller said.
“It really impacted our tourism revenue – we didn’t see nearly as many as we usually see,” he said. The Kennicott arrived once every 10 days or so.
Seldovia has three restaurants: the Linwood Bar and Grill, the Sea Parrot Inn Cafe and Tide Pool. It has just one grocery store. “The store is half empty in between weeks. That means you can’t get eggs, milk and cheese. You have to order from Homer and pay for it to have it flown in,” Haller said. “It’s hard to plan things, or order parts. My son ordered a transmission – he waited an additional two weeks to get it across. Construction projects were held off because of the ferry system.”
The Seldovia Village Tribe’s ferry “did a great job,” Haller said, but it is limited in the kinds of freight it can carry, such as lumber and construction supplies.
In a normal year, Homer would have dockings from both the Tusty and Kennicott. The Kennicott comes twice a month while the Tustumena routes to the Aleutians.
Phil Morris, owner of Alaska Ferry Adventures, said one problem was that the Kennicott’s schedule bunched landings together.
“What’s happened here this summer was you had three landings in a row, say on a Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and then it will be another two weeks before they come back. That’s inconvenient.”
Morris said his business didn’t see a significant difference because the Kennicott can hold twice as many cars as the Tustumena. He saw that the traffic was heavy enough to fill the ferry, unlike its normal schedule that leaves half empty on each run.
Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the Tusty’s replacement will cost between $175 million to possibly past $200 million. The state put out a request for proposals on Aug. 28.
“We expect to have proposals by Sept. 26 and a contract in place by October. We don’t know yet what it will cost since we need a design firm on hand to tell us what it looks like and how it will serve,” Woodrow said.
The Tusty is considered ideal for its routes because it can sail on the open ocean, yet is small enough to get into narrow bays. The Kennicott’s 382-foot length and 85-foot beam, was too large to dock in five communities – Akutan, False Pass and Chignik on the Chain and Ouzinki and Port Lions on Kodiak Island. They haven’t seen a ferry for many months, he said.
How to pay for a new ferry will be up to the governor and the legislature, Woodrow said. Federal highway funds are appropriated to the AMHS as well. “We have money to do the design. The governor put $10 million toward the replacement ferry’s design.”
The governor and state officials are aware of the hardship communities suffered since April when the Tusty was sent to Seward Ship’s Drydock and Ship’s Chandlery.
“It’s been very trying for everyone involved. It was an unfortunate situation, given the extended delays especially,” Woodrow said.
While at the shipyard, the ferry was looked at for any work that needed to be done, in addition to the known repairs. That’s when problems in the lower areas of the ship were found.
“They found the steel had gotten to the point where it needed to be replaced on the outshell of the ferry. It took them longer to do it – and some repairs had to be redone several times,” he added.
They expect the ferry to be back in business by mid-October. In the meantime, the Kennicott will operate on an amended schedule that travelers can check out at alaskaferries.com
The Tustumena will be decommissioned when a replacement is built.
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