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Private ferry operators start filling Southeast Alaska service gaps

Private ferry operators have begun offering trips in Southeast Alaska to fill winter service gaps as the state strives to get an idled ferry operating again.
Published: Jan. 24, 2022 at 4:44 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Private ferry operators have begun offering trips in Southeast Alaska to fill winter service gaps as the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities tries to get an idled state ferry operating again.

The M/V LeConte was taken out of service for its annual overhaul until late March. Communities like Gustavus and Tenakee Springs faced close to two months without ferry service during winter.

Tom Williams, Gustavus’ city manager, said that would have a “significant impact” on the remote community’s residents. They use ferry service for medical appointments and to buy groceries.

In response, the state of Alaska contracted with private operators to fill those gaps. Allen Marine Tours, a Sitka-based cruise company, offered trips last week from Juneau to Hoonah and Pelican.

Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for the state transportation department, said last week’s trip “wasn’t very full.” The sailing cost the state $7,999.

This week, Goldbelt, Inc., an Alaska Native corporation, is scheduled to take trips across the northern Lynn Canal. On Monday, a catamaran was set to sail from Juneau to Haines and Skagway at a cost to the state of $6,305.

On Wednesday, the corporation is scheduled to sail from Juneau to Hoonah and Gustavus at a cost of $5,390. On Friday there will be a similar trip to Tenakee Springs and Angoon at a cost of $6,860 and another Juneau trip to Skagway and Haines on Saturday.

But, these services are just for passengers and not for vehicles and freight. Williams said that is a critical need for communities like Gustavus as they prepare for the summer tourism and fishing seasons.

A contract for vehicle and freight services was put out for bid, but hasn’t been filled, Dapcevich said. The state of Alaska hopes to have the M/V Tazlina operating in the first week of February to cover the routes until the M/V LeConte is brought back into service.

“It’s not 100% in stone yet but that is our goal,” Dapcevich said.

An announcement on the M/V Tazlina is expected soon. If the state ferry starts operating again, private ferry service may not be needed, Dapcevich added.

The state’s three ferry workers’ unions have been frustrated that the M/V Tazlina was not activated earlier, saying they believe there were enough crewmembers to get it sailing again.

The unions issued a joint press release after unanimously voting to allow private operators to serve Haines and Skagway, which is not typically allowed under their collective bargaining agreements.

A shortage of qualified mariners has been a challenge for the Alaska Marine Highway System, leading to a recruitment push. There has also been a shortage of pursers and stewards which could get more pronounced as more ships are brought into service in the summer.

“That’s where the larger shortage is currently showing up, although the shortage is spread across the entire system and all three unions,” said Shannon Adamson of the Alaska chapter of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.

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