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Mat-Su officials delay decision on future of troubled ferry

Sean Doogan
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly on Thursday pushed off a decision on what to do with the beleaguered ice-breaking ferry that's cost more than $1 million so far without seeing service. They did, however, decide what not to do with it. Charley Starr / Mat-Su Burough

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly voted Thursday night to delay a decision on the winter fate of its star-crossed ferry, the M/V Susitna. The group did, however, manage to decide what it will not do with the 198-foot-long ice-breaking catamaran. The boat will not be dry-docked, because the borough cannot get the necessary permits to upgrade Port MacKenzie to handle pulling and storing the vessel out-of-water. 

Since its construction, the ferry has been mired in uncertainty. The $80 million boat has been sitting in Ketchikan -- by sea, more than 1,000 miles southeast of the Mat-Su Borough -- since shortly after it was built in 2011. And it’s costing the borough money -- $90,000 per month -- to keep it there. A year’s worth of docking, insurance, maintenance, and the cost of employing a small crew for the Susitna would pay for the cost of as many as 20 teachers in the Mat-Su School District. As of last month, its temporary visit to Ketchikan has cost the borough more than $1.4 million.

The Assembly wants to save the borough some of those costs, while it also tries to find a way to get the Susitna over its financial horizon for good. It decided Thursday night on several options: sell the Ferry; give it to another governmental entity; or do a "wet long-term layup," either in Ketchikan where the boat is currently docked, or at Seward. A wet layup would entail mooring the boat to the dock, draining fresh water from its tanks, and securing the engines. It could reduce the cost of keeping the boat from about $1.4 million to around $210,000 per year. 

But even the ship’s captain says it should be sold.

“You don’t have a ferry vessel, you have a high-speed craft, ferry vessel. Different codes regulate it. It is more expensive to operate. You would be better off getting a new, regular ferry,” said the Susitna’s captain, J.P. Stormont.

The M/V Susitna struggled through troubled waters since it was built. The boat is a half-scale, prototype version of a US Navy landing craft -- the world’s first ice-breaking catamaran. It was given to the Mat-Su Borough through a deal worked out by former Senator Ted Stevens. The idea was that it could serve as a ferry from Point MacKenzie to Anchorage, just over two miles across Knik Arm. It was also touted as a potential rescue vessel for Cook Inlet. Its service in Southcentral would essentially be a real-life field test, so that the Navy could examine its performance, without having to do costly sea trials over a period of years. 

Problem is, the boat requires a special landing area -- one that’s capable of handling vehicle traffic. The Ferry can carry up to 50 cars and 150 people. A dock is available in Point MacKenzie, but it still needs costly modification before it could handle the traffic the ferry could bring. And, there is no dock for the Susitna on the Anchorage side. The result has been a prototype ice-breaking catamaran sitting at a dock, 1,000 miles from where it was supposed to be working. It has become a type of ghost ship, never seen in the waters it was built to sail.

The Mat Su Borough has tried to sell the boat -- it has even offered any willing buyer an opportunity to secure $6 million of Navy money still available for the project. But so far, no willing buyer has made an offer the Borough can accept. Scrapping the ship wouldn’t bring in nearly enough to cover its value, and the borough would be potentially left on the hook for millions of dollars it would owe the federal government.

But time is ticking for the Mat-Su Borough Assembly to make a decision. Stormont said the latest the ship could sail from Ketchikan to Seward -- if that’s the dock ultimately chosen to hold the boat over the winter -- would be in mid-October. 

Some area residents, though, want the borough to consider working to put the ferry into service some day. More than one who showed up to testify at the Thursday meeting said they would like to see it sailing across the Knik Arm, and criticized what they believe is the Assembly’s lack of a concrete plan for the boat.

"Let’s end the fairy tale and get real. Otherwise it just looks like another course consideration," said Jim Sykes.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com