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Alaska Marine Highway renews interest in free Susitna ferry

Suzanna Caldwell
The Mat-Su Borough is giving away its ferry M/V Susitna, and the Alaska Marine Highway System will take a look. Charley Starr / Mat-Su Burough

With pressure mounting over what to do with the star-crossed Susitna Ferry, the Alaska Marine Highway System said it will conduct an analysis to see if the much-maligned vessel fits into its fleet.

Marine Highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said legislators and officials from the Matanuska-Susitna borough have asked the system to explore the possibility of new routes where the M/V Susitna could be used and provide an analysis that includes operating and capital costs associated with acquiring the ferry.

Woodrow said that analysis is still in its early stages and lacks a rigid completion date.

The analysis is a shift from the agency’s previous stance that the Susitna wouldn’t fit into Alaska Marine Highway System, a primary transportation link for many Alaska coastal communities. Woodrow said the 200-foot Susitna, which is capable of holding 20 cars and about 120 people, would be one of the system's smallest vessels. Currently, the 181-foot Lituya, which can hold 149 passengers, is the smallest in the fleet.

The Susitna’s unique ice-breaking ability, with twin hulls capable of beach landings, means existing docks would have to modified to load cars and passengers. With a traveling speed of 16 knots, Woodrow said the Susitna is better suited for short runs, something the ferry system largely lacks.

The Mat-Su borough is looking for someone to take over the ferry, and quick. The Susitna -- which the borough assumed ownership of this summer -- remains unused and docked in Ketchikan's Ward Cove. Insurance, maintenance and staffing cost the borough $90,000 a month. Because of rising costs, the borough offered to give the Susitna away to any U.S. government entity completely free of charge last week.

Changes within DOT

Part of the change in tune comes from personnel changes at the Alaska Marine Highway System. Former Department of Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken resigned in August, with longtime DOT employee Pat Kemp, taking over.

Mat-Su Borough Manager John Moosey said before Luiken resigned, he had been “very optimistic” the system would take the ferry. But with Luiken gone, interest waned, and in early January the borough asked Gov. Sean Parnell to reach out to the DOT to further ferry discussions.

During Kemp's confirmation hearings last week, some questioned what the commissioner would do to help bring the Alaska Class Ferry project together. Some residents of southeast Alaska have criticized the administration's handling of the project that would add a ferry to fleet to replace the aging 408-foot Malaspina, built in 1963.

In December, Parnell asked the ferry system to change the project from one large 350-foot vessel to two smaller ones. Parnell cited cost overruns -- the project pricetag had grown from $120 to $150 million -- as reasoning behind the switch. Some Southeast residents have expressed concern smaller vessels may not be as reliable as a larger one.

Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Anchorage, was one of handful of lawmakers who asked DOT to reconsider the Susitna. Fairclough, who represented Eagle River on the Anchorage Assembly during the early days of the Susitna Ferry project, said that with the system considering adding two smaller ferries costing about $50 million each, it makes sense for the system to take another look at the free Susitna.

“We know that there's something built and out there,” said Fairclough, who serves on the senate transportation committee. “Is there a way to utilize it in our fleet?”

However, Fairclough characterized the suggestion of incorporating the Susitna into the ferry system as a “sidebar” in the ongoing discussion over how to best replace the Malaspina.

“I was just throwing another idea into the hopper,” she said.

Offers all around

Moosey said it’s too early to tell what will come out of the Alaska Marine Highway assessment, but said the Susitna is an “incredible” vessel that the borough would like to see working somewhere in Alaska. Still, he recognizes that even though the Susitna would be free, there are other costs associated with the vessel.

Another seemingly natural entity, the U.S. Coast Guard, has passed on the ship. Moosey said it would have taken two years of investment before the Coast Guard could have started using the vessel.

“The timing has not been great for really anybody,” Moosey said.

Despite that, Port MacKenzie Director Marc Van Dongen said Friday that he'd been busy taking calls and emails from organizations interested in the free vessel, including parties in Washington state and Florida. Van Dongen said he even had a port in Nigeria reach out to him, though it's unlikely they'll get it.  He noted that because Federal Transit Administration funds were used to pay for the Susitna, the ferry can only be given away to government entity in the United States.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com