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Alaska 'ferry to nowhere' likely won't serve as Kenai fishing taxi

Suzanna Caldwell
The $78 million ice-breaker ferry, the M/V Susitna, is sitting in Ketchikan as Mat-Su Borough officials try to find it a new home. Charley Starr / Mat-Su Burough

It's been almost a month since the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in Alaksa offered to give its much-maligned Susitna ferry -- a $78 million vessel sitting unused in Ketchikan -- away for free. Since then, Port MacKenzie Director Marc Van Dongen said he's received “quite a bit of interest” -- including inquiries from at least half a dozen states, including New Jersey, Florida, Alabama, Washington state and Hawaii. Even a group from Nigeria reached out to borough.

But most of that interest has been very preliminary. So far, the borough has only received one formal letter requesting information about the vessel, according to Van Dongen. But things are speeding ahead. Van Dongen said a village in Hawaii has expressed interest in the vessel, going as far as to make a trip to Ketchikan to see the Susitna in person.

Van Dongen said it is too early to tell whether they will take it or not. Federal Transit Administration (FTA) rules require the vessel to be transferred to another federal, state or local government entity. Otherwise, the borough will have to repay millions in FTA funds. Van Dongen, who declined to name the group due to the early stage of negotiations, said it is still working with the state of Hawaii to see if they can be eligible for the ferry.

Alaska options?

Even if somebody takes on the free vessel, plenty of costs await. That alone has persuaded some local entities to back away. Several Alaska Native corporations, including Aleut and Sitnasuak Corp., have considered the ferry but none have come to any firm decision, according to Van Dongen.

It's especially unlikely the Nome-based Sitnasuak would take on the vessel. Van Dongen said Sitnasuak was interested in using the ferry as a transportation link to the remote island community of Diomede, which hugs the island of Little Diomede on the U.S.-Russian border, but there are issues:

• The slow 10 mph speed of the Susitna, coupled with the high cost of operating it -- an estimated $23,000 for one roundtrip from Nome to Diomede.

• Its inability to break through pack ice, which there is plenty of in the Bering Strait during the longer sub-Arctic winter. Despite being billed as the world's first ice-breaking catamaran, the Susitna can't break through much more than the slushy brash ice commonly found in Cook Inlet.

Fish ferry?

A tongue-in-cheek Peninsula Clarion newspaper editorial suggested the Mat-Su consider using the vessel to transport fishermen from Anchorage and the Mat-Su to the Kenai. The editorial cited safety on the roads on a major benefit of a ferry, since the main link between Anchorage and Kenai Peninsula, the Seward Highway, is considered one of Alaska's deadliest roads. The paper also suggests commuters will save money. Van Dongen said that's not the case, since the cost of running the ferry would probably make a ticket more expensive than the price of gas for a three-hour drive from Anchorage to Kenai.

Another problem? Moving at 10 mph, it would take the Susitna seven hours to make the trip through Cook Inlet.

Still, the editorial acknowledges the ferry probably wouldn't be a good fit for the Kenai, while acknowledging that there must be an entity somewhere in Alaska interested in the vessel.

“Alaska has some 6,000 miles of coastline, much of it in the Arctic, and there is a constant clamor over our lack of maritime resources along large swaths of it,” according to the editorial. “Surely someone somewhere can put a state-of-the-art vessel like to Susitna to good use.”

Van Dongen said the borough is still looking for interested parties to take on the vessel. Non-government entities that wish to purchase the vessel still have time to submit bids. Van Dongen suspects that many of those bids will be from scrappers, a fate he doesn't wish for the vessel. He and others at the borough won't know until the bids are unsealed on March 29.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com