Village ferry system would be costly

Jim Calvin, a partner in the McDowell Group of Anchorage and Pat Eberhardt, a naval architect from Coastwise Corporation, presented highlights of the study commissioned by the Kodiak Archipelago Rural Regional Leadership Forum (KARRLF), an unofficial group made of leaders from the Island’s village communities to the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly Tuesday night. (Drew Herman photo)

Members of the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly saw a fleshed-out vision of Kodiak Island villages linked by their own ferry, presented at a special work session Tuesday.

In 2,000 hours of research over 14 months, consultants explored the feasibility of connecting Kodiak’s six outlying communities by regular ferry service, exploring options for vessels, routes and possible road extensions. The resulting 170-page draft report estimates potential annual revenue from such a service between $440,000 and $757,000, but with operating costs for the most attractive option around $2.34 million.

“There’s no such thing as a publicly operated ferry system operated on the cheap,” said Jim Calvin, a partner in the McDowell Group of Anchorage.

Calvin and Pat Eberhardt, a naval architect from Coastwise Corporation, presented highlights of the study commissioned by the Kodiak Archipelago Rural Regional Leadership Forum (KARRLF), an unofficial group made of leaders from the island’s village communities.

“I’m not sure where we’ve landed here, but it was definitely a challenging study from all perspectives,” Eberhardt said.

Challenges in designing a viable local ferry system for Kodiak Island include the small market, a vast geographic area, and rough waters, Calvin said. The combined population of the rural communities is about 750.

Infrastructure in most of the villages would need development to accommodate a ferry. Akhiok, for example lacks a fuel dock and has poor options for a deepwater dock. But there was also interest from Port Lions, the largest of Kodiak’s rural communities, in serving as a transportation hub for the villages.

The study looked at other ferry systems in Alaska and around the world for insights into how a local Kodiak system might work.

Calvin called the Ketchikan-Metlakatla service with the ferry Lituya in Southeast Alaska “the simplest service you can imagine.” The two-stop route with frequent service requires a $550,000 annual subsidy.

“That’s really the most lucrative ferry route in Alaska,” Calvin said.

He noted that in fiscal year 2009, the Tustumena brought in $3 million and cost $6.6 million to operate, and the Alaska Marine Highway System gets about $80 million from the Legislature to meet its budget.

“That’s sort of the sad truth about public ferry systems in Alaska,” Calvin said.

Among vessel options for Kodiak the study looked at a “day boat” and landing craft.

“Our options are all pretty good size,” Eberhardt said, noting a survey of ferries around the world operating in comparable conditions found nothing smaller than 200 feet. Smaller vessels would have worse sea-keeping qualities, meaning passengers might get uncomfortably rough rides.

The day boat idea envisions a 263-foot vessel “basically like the Tusty but with no overnight accommodations,” Eberhardt said.

Eliminating onboard crew accommodations and dining facilities results in substantial savings on operating costs.

Using a landing craft ferry has the advantage of beach access where there are no deepwater docks, and the vessel itself would cost much less. However, their low speed would make some routes impractical, the ramps might not work well for all vehicles at all locations, and landing craft can be hard to control on beaches.

The study found the day-boat model to be the most cost-effective. But Calvin said, “It’s not designed to meet market demand. It’s designed to be safe.”

However, such a ferry probably could not call on Karluk, Larsen Bay or Akhiok.

The study also addressed “enhanced” service from the ferry Tustumena. Calvin said the current service to Port Lions is excellent, with 117 sailings per year and revenues of $120,000. He suggested lobbying the Legislature and AMHS for more service around Kodiak, although that would put the island in competition with other Alaska communities for the valuable resource of one of that state’s only two ocean-going ferries.

“From a community standpoint you would want to maximize the heck out of that,” he said.

The study examined road extensions to terminals at locations that would substantially shorten the ferry routes. Developing Anton Larsen Bay as a departure point for routes around the west side of Kodiak also offered advantages.

Assembly member Jerrol Friend said that although jumping right into pursuing a local ferry seems impractical, the study pointed to directions for a “stepping stone” approach to improving transport between the villages. Borough Mayor Jerome Selby called for another meeting with KARRLF about future possibilities after the assembly formally accepts the final version of the study.

The study cost $250,000, funded through grants from the Denali Commission, the Alaska Department of Transportation, and Kodiak Island Borough.

Woody Koning, director of the borough engineering and facilities department, managed the feasibility study for KARRLF. He called the group a “talking place” and “an experiment in deep democracy.” He said KARRLF has no budget, official standing or authority.

“It’s sort of a town meeting kind of an organization,” Koning said. “Participation is by invitation. To be invited you must live in a village.”

After direct freight delivery from Seattle ended several years ago, KARRLF was organized to look into issues of common interest to Kodiak villages, such as improving education, fuel delivery, fisheries.

“Some of the stores closed in the villages and now they have to shop in Kodiak,” Koning said.

Marine ferry expert Mike McKinnen gave the group some direction that led to the local ferry feasibility study. A final version of the study is expected by the end of April. Koning said it will be made available to the public, possibly on a website.

Mirror writer Drew Herman can be reached via e-mail at

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