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Alaska Marine Highway seeks private companies to fill Southeast service gaps

Published: Dec. 2, 2021 at 4:18 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Marine Highway System is looking for private companies to fill service gaps over the winter for small communities in Southeast Alaska.

The LeConte is set to be taken out of service in early January until the end of February for its annual overhaul and recertification. That would see communities like Pelican without ferry service for two months.

Mainline ferries are too large to serve communities on the Northern Panhandle and the state’s smaller ships are said to be unavailable.

“The stars are not aligning for us to use one of our own vessels,” said Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

He explained that the Aurora is currently serving Prince William Sound. It would take too long to get crews ready to operate the Tazlina, and not possible to get a temporary sailing certification for only two months.

The Hubbard, an Alaska Class ferry that has never sailed with passengers since being built three years ago, has other challenges. It will soon be fitted with sleeping quarters to increase its sailing range at a cost of around $16 million, Dapcevich said.

After hearing frustration from residents about the possibility of long service gaps, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities put out an invitation in late November for private companies to bid and offer ferry service through March, including shipment of vehicles.

“Right now, we’re trying to see what interest is out there,” Dapcevich said.

There are four lots on offer, serving communities like Angoon, Tenakee Springs, Pelican, Hoonah and Gustavus. The precise sailing schedule, and costs, will need to be negotiated with state officials.

Some of the impacted Southeast communities could see ferry service increase significantly to once a week or even twice a week over the winter. The department also hopes to have a “supplemental” private ferry option available through March of 2023 in case the LeConte is suddenly unable to operate, Dapcevich said.

Mayor Patricia Phillips of the City of Pelican says service gaps of two or three months for the boardwalk city are tough but manageable.

“If it gets longer than that, it really becomes a hardship,” she said.

Residents fax in food orders and there is a “mad dash” to unload them from the LeConte when it pulls into Pelican. Phillips said she couldn’t comment about private ferry service as she didn’t know the details. But, she said that state ferry service twice a month in the winter for Pelican would be “almost a miracle, to tell you the truth.”

Tom Williams, city administrator for Gustavus, agrees that service gaps are difficult, saying rural Southeast communities rely on the state’s ferries for medical trips, shipments of food and other supplies and to prepare for a busy summer visitor season.

“Not having reliable transportation is very significant,” he said.

Neither Williams nor Phillips were told ahead of time that the Alaska Marine Highway System is looking for private companies to fill ferry service gaps. Williams said it’s possible that a private operator could use the Gustavus state dock and its ramp, but without looking at vessel specifications he isn’t sure.

Norm Carson, president of the Pelican Chamber of Commerce, wasn’t told about the plan either. He was recently chosen by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to sit on a new long-term ferry oversight board that has yet to meet formally.

Carson said he told state officials that Pelican didn’t need any state ferry service in January or February. He is skeptical that Pelican needs ferry service in winter every week or even twice a month.

“We don’t think it’s cost effective or necessary to get out that frequently in the middle of winter,” he added.

Carson said using private companies in the winter would be a “cost saving measure for the state.” Dapcevich disputes that, saying contracting with private companies is not an effort to save money but only to replace the LeConte while it’s offline.

The department has previously contracted Goldbelt, Inc. and Allen Marine Tours on a temporary basis to run ships to these small Southeast communities.

“Previous rates from 2020 for similar passenger route contracts ranged from $7,800 per trip to $11,250 depending on the route,” Dapcevich said by email, explaining that costs are expected to rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Ballpark estimate is a 20% increase over those passenger service rates.”

Zak Kirkpatrick, a spokesperson for Allen Marine Tours, said the company is just starting to look at the online notice for passenger services and has “nothing to report.” A spokesperson for Goldbelt, Inc. did not respond to a request for comment on whether it would bid.

Bowhead Transport, a subsidiary of an Alaska Native corporation based out of Western Alaska, is interested. Clark Hill, the operations manager, said it is looking at whether it will place a bid for the vehicle and freight delivery contract.

The Unalaq, a landing craft that typically operates in the Aleutians and Western Alaska, has spent the past few winters in Southeast Alaska. Hill explained it has been used to ship freight and undergo repairs in the relatively milder climate.

“It’s supplementing our mainstay which is Western Alaska and the Arctic,” Hill said.

The contracts for the private companies are set to be announced on Dec. 28.

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