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As welders work on 'Trusty Tusty,' future of aging Alaska ferry full of questions

Pat Forgey
"We're confident that once the repairs are done the vessel will be up to shape and will be in good condition to confidently serve the communities it does for the remainder of its life," Marine Highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said of the aging ferry Tustumena. Isaac Wedin / cc via flickr

JUNEAU -- The ongoing travails of the ferry Tustumena, now under repair at Seward Ship's Drydock, highlight the need to replace the aging ship.

"We ended up finding a lot more deterioration in this vessel than we originally thought," said Jim Pruitt, owner and president of the company handling the $6 million overhaul of the Tustumena.

That's got Seward Ship's Drydock embroiled in a dispute over the quality of its work with the Alaska Marine Highway System and U.S. Coast Guard inspectors.

It has also left Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and Southwest Alaska communities without crucial summertime ferry service.

The Marine Highway recently announced that the Tustumena’s return to service would be delayed nearly a month, until Aug. 20, as improper welds are fixed.

43-year-old steel

Pruitt, however, says that what inspectors are calling problem welds are the fault of the vessel, not his welders.

"The problem is we've got 43-year-old steel there, and we're welding it to new steel. We're not going to get X-ray-certifiable welds welding old steel to new steel," Pruitt said.

Coast Guard marine vessel inspectors said the welds looked inadequate, and that was confirmed by the use of X-rays.

It's not news that the Tustumena is an old vessel. The Alaska Legislature set aside $10 million to begin planning and design work on a new vessel this year, but ferry officials say replacement is still years away.

The ship, known affectionately as the "Tusty," has been called the "Trusty Tusty" by those who rely on her. Lately, she's also been called the "Rusty Tusty," also affectionately, but further highlighting the vessel's age.

"We've got to keep the Tusty going for five years. It will be a challenge, but we'll do it," John Falvey, division director of the state Transportation & Public Facilities, recently told the state's Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

The Tustumena isn't the oldest ship in the Marine Highway fleet. It joined in 1964, a year after the Taku, Matanuska and Malaspina -- but has had a harder life.

Open-ocean pounding

While those other vessels have spent most of their lives in the protected waters of the Inside Passage, the Tustumena has pounded through the open ocean, Falvey said.

The state has not yet developed a cost estimate for replacing the Tustumena. That will be done during the design process, though vessel-construction discussions over the last several years have suggested a cost in the low hundreds of millions of dollars is likely.

It comes at a time when the state budget is already in deficit spending and the Legislature has been cutting taxes, limiting revenues available for future capital projects.

Cost cutting has been part of the Tustumena's history, too. The vessel was built in the days before the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay. In fact, the Tusty was shortened as a cost-savings measure.

That shortened vessel proved inadequate in the ocean, Falvey said, and a few years later it was returned the shipyard to be lengthened. That left it with hull plats -- a combination of old steel and even older steel.

Marine Highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said that despite the difficulties with the ongoing overhaul, they have confidence in the Tustumena.

Could it last 10 more years?

"We're confident that once the repairs are done the vessel will be up to shape and will be in good condition to confidently serve the communities it does for the remainder of its life," he said.

That could be five years or even 10 years, but the Tustumena is capable of that, he said.

Meanwhile, Seward Ship's Drydock is trying to get the welds to pass inspection so ferry service can resume service.

When the Tustumena first went into drydock last November, the ferry Kennicott was available to serve some of the Tustumena's route, though the Kennicott wouldn't fit in some ports.

Woodrow said the Marine Highway sought a replacement vessel earlier this year when work on the Tustumena was extended, but neither the Kennicott nor another state ferry nor a privately owned vessel that could handle those duties was available.

"It’s a really unfortunate circumstance that those communities that rely on the Tusty so bad have to go without service because there really isn't another ferry available without disrupting a lot of other passengers," Woodrow said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com