As repairs to the Tustumena drag on, the Alaska Marine Highway System is looking for a Band-Aid to patch the hole in its service map.
Late last month, the ferry system published a notice directed at boat operators across Alaska: If you have a boat that can carry at least three vehicles and six passengers, the marine highway wants to hear from you.
The notice, formally known as a “request for information,” was inspired by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, which has urged the marine highway system to find another way to get cars to Kodiak while the ferry Tustumena remains in a Seward dry dock.
“There was just some concern because of the continued delays that the community would lose the Tustumena for the entire summer,” said Trevor Brown, executive director of the Kodiak Chamber. “When they came out with the delay to July 6, we thought they should start looking at ways to provide additional service.”
The ferry Kennicott has filled in for the Tustumena on a partial basis, but the larger, newer Kennicott can’t fit into some of the ports the Tustumena serves, and its primary purpose is supposed to be the Whittier-Bellingham route, bringing tourists to Alaska from the Lower 48.
Last week, KUCB-FM in Dutch Harbor spoke with Pinkney Cunningham, general manager of Seward Ship’s Drydock. He said “it might be a stretch” to bring the Tustumena back into service by July 7 — a date that itself is one month later than originally scheduled.
Those repeated delays have spurred the ferry system to look for alternatives. “It’s a low-cost, low-labor thing for the ferry system to do,” marine highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said of the request for information.
If the Tustumena is finished by July, the request for information turns into an exercise, Woodrow said. If the Tustumena’s return is delayed, the ferry system could issue a formal request for proposals to carry passengers and vehicles. “We really aren’t sure what is out there, so this is a good exercise to see what is out there,” he said.
The request has few details. It asks for any Coast Guard-certified boats that can accommodate at least three vehicles and six passengers between Homer and Kodiak, Kodiak and Port Lions, Kodiak and Ouzinkie, or Kodiak and Old Harbor.
The request doesn’t state whether the boat needs to have a closed deck, and open deck, or any facilities to house passengers separate from their cars.
That’s deliberate, Woodrow said. The state wants to collect as much information as possible to cover all possible options.
Summer is typically the busy season for marine shippers in Alaska, so there may not be many options for the state.
The Jones Act precludes foreign-built ships from operating between American ports, which would rule out ships from British Columbia or Asia.
One choice could be the M/V Susitna, a troubled ferry owned by the Mat-Su borough and moored in Ketchikan. The Mat-Su borough government has been unable to use the $80 million Susitna for its intended purpose as a Cook Inlet ferry, and the Marine Highway has stated it is unwilling to operate the Susitna itself.
Woodrow said the state ferry system could be open to the idea of the Mat-Su borough operating the ferry on an outsourced basis, but the borough would need to provide information under the public notice.
Woodrow said the amount of time needed to put an interim ferry into service will depend on what boats and companies respond to the request for information.
The submission period closes Wednesday.
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