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Will Mat-Su's star-crossed ferry finally see Knik Arm?

Suzanna Caldwell

PALMER -- Exactly what to do with the star-crossed Susitna Ferry remains fuzzy, but the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly provided some direction Thursday night, asking for information on costs involved with moving the $80 million ship and keeping it in the valley.

In a special meeting, the assembly voted 6-1 to submit a request for proposals on the costs associated with moving the Susitna Ferry from where it’s being stored in Ketchikan to Port MacKenzie. Included in the $30,000 proposal would be the cost of storing the vessel and how much money it would take to put the ship back in the water, should it be docked on land.

It was the second meeting in a month to update the assembly on where it might go with the vessel and the first in which the body gave Borough Manager John Moosey an indication on how to proceed.

The ferry was completed last year, but since then it's been in Ketchikan, waiting for word on where to go next. Waiting isn't cheap. According to the latest figures, the borough is paying $66,000 a month for maintenance, docking, security and utilities.

“We're spending money like drunken sailors storing this thing in Ketchikan,” said Assemblyman Ron Arvin. However, several options over what to do with the ferry remain. Some want the ferry moved to the Mat-Su. Others want it off the books completely.

More than $1 million to dry-dock?

While options differed, the assembly remained clear on one thing: It needs to be done fast. 

Moosey said the cost of dry-docking the ferry could be as much as seven figures annually, although without an estimate, it's hard to say.

“If it's going to cost $2 million to dry-dock, the assembly might not want it,” Moosey said. “We'll have to find out.”

The state-of-the-art Susitna Ferry, billed as the world's first ice breaking catamaran, was built as a Navy prototype. The late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens helped secure numerous earmarks though Defense Department budgets to pay for the ship, which was seen as essentially a gift to the Mat-Su. The hope was instead of the vessel ending up in the scrap pile, as many prototype ships do, the vessel would shuttle commuters across Knik Arm from Anchorage to Point MacKenzie. The ferry, which can hold about 20 cars and 150 people, could even serve as a rescue vessel during the winter.

But with no place to put the ferry, it remains in Ketchikan.

Other options include putting it on a federal surplus list, giving it to the Alaska Marine Highway System or simply selling it. But much of the discussion on Thursday focused on storage. Getting the ferry to Port MacKenzie is proving a challenge. Early projections that had the Susitna arriving in Mat-Su by the summer 2012 were wrong.

Assembly members discussed several ideas about what to do with it: Beach it, float it in the mud near the port, build a cradle to hold it.

Port Director Marc Van Dongen said all the permits are in place to build a modified landing at Point MacKenzie, but the Federal Transit Authority put a freeze on funds for the project until a suitable landing on the Anchorage side of Knik Arm can be found.

What about Anchorage side?

Van Dongen thinks the odds of getting permits secured on the Anchorage side are about 50-50. Studies still need to be concluded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard.

Even if they do, he doesn't think that running the ship would be cost-effective or reasonable. If some sort of temporary floating structure was built at the port of Anchorage, passengers would not be able to drive cars onto the ferry. They'd have to park at an offsite parking garage and be shuttled over, then take a bus once on the Mat-Su side. Van Dongen estimates it would cost people about $35 for each trip, a price that would probably prohibit many from using the ferry.

“There is no scenario I could think of running this that would break even eventually,” Van Dongen said.

No second chance

Port commissioner David Cruz was more adamant about keeping the ferry. The port commission passed a resolution last month supporting the ship's move to the Mat-Su. The initial cost estimate for bringing the ship the valley – about $125,000 -- could probably be lowered, Cruz said. For example, a tug boat could haul it, cutting a huge chunk out of the fuel price tag.

Cruz did reiterate one point: If the assembly wants a ferry, this is the only chance it will have.

Assemblyman Warren Keogh was the only vote against the resolution. Keogh believes he's the only assembly member who's actually been on the ship, and he called it a fantastic vessel. But he doesn't see how the borough can continue with the project.

“It's a cool boat. I love the ferry,” he said. “But an extraordinary amount of money is being spent.

“I don't see how this will work out. We should cut our losses sooner rather than later.”

Darcie Salmon, assemblyman and former borough mayor, said earlier this month he recognizes the ship is an “albatross” to the borough, but he believes that having the ship in its home port will at least get people thinking about it.

“I think we should (find) a place to park it, so people can see it and feel it and touch it. The Mat-Su borough owns it, but we can't emotionally take possession of it. If it was parked here, we would figure out how to get into it, rather than get out of it.”

Many assembly members agreed they were glad the vexed Susitna ferry project finally had some direction.

“Maybe we will be happy, maybe we will be saddened,” Arvin said of the proposal. “But at least we'll have some sort of data on it.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com