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PoV: The sinking of the AMHS fleet


This isn’t an article about a vessel collision at sea, but the erosion and sinking of an entire fleet/system.

As the state ferry Malaspina prepares to join, space permitting, the Chenega, Fairweather and Aurora in the bone yard known as Ward Cove (the Taku was dismantled in India just recently), it’s time to look back at the once proud history of this Alaska treasure and figure out how and why it’s spiraled down (sank) to the depths where it resides at this time.

 Haines visionaries started it all in 1948. The territory picked up the torch in 1951, and the first Alaska Legislature passed the Alaska Ferry Transportation Act. The first three ferries arrived in 1963, to much fanfare, to supplement the lone ferry (M/V Chilkat) that served only Haines/Juneau/Skagway. Other ferries soon followed, and by the mid-1970s, the fleet was nine vessels strong in servicing 30-plus communities and spanning 3,500 federal highway miles (federal dollars). The rest of the state has just barely over 1,000 federal highway miles. Service spanned from Seattle and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to the end of the Aleutian Islands and many of the landlocked costal communities in Southeast, Southwest and Southcentral Alaska.

 The Alaska Marine Highway System was an Alaska success story. Word got out and by the 1990s, busloads of national and international tourists traveled regularly out of Prince Rupert and Bellingham. Car deck space and staterooms were sold out, and the bars, gift shops and food service registers were ringing nonstop. In the summer, 350-450 passengers departed northbound out of Prince Rupert four times a week and 700 a week out of Bellingham, Washington.

 In 1998, the M/V Kennicott was commissioned and built almost entirely with federal money to serve as a command center and oil response vessel in direct response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. For about one-third the price of the Kennicott, another ($25 million-$30 million) sister ship could have been stamped out to replace the M/V Tustemena. At the time, five of the system’s vessels were 30-35 years old. A conservative estimate for a steel ship’s hull life is 30 years. This was a serious oversight, and a missed opportunity.

In 2004-2005, the fast vehicle ferries Fairweather and Chenega began service. Everybody loves to get somewhere faster. The reality of the situation is that if you’re not transporting passengers only, on short hops, multiple times, taking people to and from work, they usually are economically unfeasible. Couple that with the fact that the design was tweaked a bit so the vessels would better fit our docks, thus making them virtually unusable about seven months a year because they can’t operate safely, comfortably or at speed in even three-foot seas, and this decision looks very poor.

 The fact that these fast ferries had (they’re gone) a hull life expectancy of 12 years, and four of your vessels are 40-years-old, the rest, excepting the Kennicott, are 30-plus years old, makes this decision system-crippling. Only two of the five originally planned fast vehicle ferries were built. For the price of those five, two Taku-class steel-hulled vessels probably could have been built.

 The Alaska Class ferries (M/V Tazalina and Hubbard), built in Alaska, lost $120 million in federal dollars because the state bypassed the competitive bidding process. I’m told the money didn’t go, “it was allocated elsewhere in the state.”

 These ferries were built to run in conjunction with the Juneau Access road, servicing only Juneau/Haines/Skagway. The Juneau Access road, which doesn’t exist, would be a billion dollar-plus road through 75 avalanche areas that has been fought about for over 40 years. This would create “seasonal” access to one city of 32,000 people, and it would still require short-hop ferries to complete. I’m told a full one-third of the cost of these ferries is contained in their custom-built bow doors (clam shell). Not one of the 30-plus ferry terminals in the state can accommodate these ferries using this door. A much-too-small portside car deck door has allowed the Tazalina to service some Southeast Alaska ports in a limited capacity. The Hubbard sits unused.

 Had these ferries been built to fit our existing infrastructure and current U.S. Coast Guard regulations, communities in Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska wouldn’t have had to be without any ferry service for six to nine months. Both ferries will need to be retrofitted with starboard side car deck doors to allow terminal access and loading and sleeping quarters to meet USCG regulations to be of any use within the system. The custom bow doors are rumored to be sealed shut.

 Had these three ferry construction situations been handled differently and with the long-term health of the system as the goal, things would not be in the crisis situation they are today. AMHS sits within the Department of Transportation, and accounts for 75% of Alaska’s federal highway miles. If one man or position had existed, someone with a marine transportation/passenger background, to guide and advocate just for AMHS within the road-centric DOT, someone not politically appointed or subjected to job loss due to changes in DOT or administrations, perhaps things would be different. At the least we’d know who to blame.

 Kevin Dickman is a recently retired captain at the Alaska Marine Highway System.