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By SCOTT BOWLEN
Daily News Staff Writer
Design work for the Alaska Class Ferry Project is keeping on track, and construction of the new 350-foot ship could start by next fall, Alaska’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board heard in Ketchikan this week.
The Alaska Class Ferry Project was part of MTAB’s Tuesday meeting agenda, which also included the topic of planning for other new vessels to replace existing Alaska Marine Highway System ferries and other issues.
The Marine Transportation Advisory Board works with AMHS and Alaska Department of Transportation on marine transportation issues in the state.
On Tuesday, Capt. Mike Neussl, the DOT deputy commissioner for marine transportation, told MTAB members that the Alaska Class Ferry Project is "keeping on track" toward a July completion of design and the "maximum price negotiations" for a construction contract with Alaska Ship and Drydock.
Neussl said the most recent design milestone for the Alaska Class ship was the completion of wave-tank testing of the hull design in Norway.
Alaska Ship and Drydock, the Vigor Industrial subsidiary that operates the state-owned Ketchikan Shipyard, is the construction manager/general contractor for the design phase of the Alaska Class project. The Elliott Bay Design Group is the state’s naval architect and engineering contractor for the design.
Alaska Ship and Drydock Development Director Doug Ward told MTAB members that, "based on the progress that we're making now — and there isn't a schedule at this point — but we think in the third or early fourth quarter of (2013) we can have steel on the ground and in the new assembly hall and beginning fabrication of the ship."
Alaska’s Legislature has made $120 million available for construction of the first Alaska Class ferry.
The Legislature’s intent has been that the ferry be built in Alaska, said Alaska DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow on Wednesday.
"However, who will build it and where it will be built won't be determined until the construction contract is awarded after the design has been finalized or (is) near finalization," Woodrow said. "We don’t want to make any guarantees in case something else were to arise."
The department’s contract with Alaska Ship and Drydock to serve as the construction manager/general contractor for the design phase of the first Alaska Class ship gives ASD the first option to bid on the construction contract, Woodrow said Wednesday.
"They’ll have the ability to make a guaranteed maximum price proposal for the construction contract, and that's once the design nears completion," Woodrow said.
On Tuesday, Ward said that Vigor Industrial’s purchase of Alaska Ship and Drydock earlier this year improved the company’s capacity to build the Alaska Class ferry. The Oregon-based Vigor operates six shipyards in the Pacific Northwest in addition to the Ketchikan Shipyard.
"We're in much better shape today as a result of this acquisition by Vigor than we were as a small business," Ward said.
In discussing how long construction might take, Ward noted that the construction period could be accelerated or decelerated depending on price and the desired schedule. As such, other Vigor yards could build modules for the Alaska Class ferry and transport them to Ketchikan for assembly, according to Ward.
MTAB Member Cathie Roemmich asked whether there was a risk that Ketchikan would lose a portion of the Alaska Class Ferry Project to the other Vigor shipyards.
"Do we have a guarantee that Vigor is going to keep it here?’ Roemmich asked. "Or, because they own all of these places, are we at risk of losing these jobs?"
Ward replied he knows that the concern exists around the state, "particularly since we have $100 million of public investment in that shipyard.
"But the easy answer is we've got the most competitive infrastructure (here in Ketchikan) — and Vigor has also discovered that we have the most productive workforce," Ward said.
Vigor is a profit-driven company that’s going to use the facilities and workforce that are going to earn them the most money, said Ward.
"And that happens to be Ketchikan, I believe," Ward said. "There’s always a risk in the competitive world. I would say that Ketchikan and the State of Alaska were more at risk (with) Alaska Ship and Drydock as small business than we are today."
Roemmich, citing an earlier public comment about the state foregoing $60 million in federal money in order to help ensure that the Alaska Class ferry would be built in Alaska, said the MTAB was the first entity to say the state didn’t need the federal cash if having it meant the project couldn’t be built in Alaska.
"Because the population is shrinking in Southeast Alaska, we felt it was really important that we do as much as we could to (have) those jobs and build the boats in Alaska," Roemmich said.
Woodrow said Wednesday that, if Alaska Ship and Drydock doesn’t successfully bid on the construction contract, the project would be put out to bid.
"Shipyards around ... the country would have the opportunity to bid on it," Woodrow said.
The Alaska Class Ferry Project launched in the late-2000s as an effort to provide one or more replacement vessels for AMHS’ aging fleet. The ferry is being designed to operate as a day boat (not needing overnight stateroom accommodations) on "intermediate-length" routes such as Lynn Canal (Juneau-Haines-Skagway) and between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
On Tuesday, Eric Gucker, a 25-year AMHS employee who’s now chief purser aboard the AMHS ferry Kennicott, voiced several of the objections that have come up during the Alaska Class Ferry Project. These objections include the lack of staterooms.
"People need them," Gucker said, citing passenger demand that led to the expansion of stateroom capacity on the AMHS ferries Taku, Matanuska and Malaspina over time. "After about 49 years, almost 50 years, you'd think we would learn something from the past. Having to modify these Alaska Class ferries after the fact is going to be very expensive."
Gucker said it’s obvious that the underlying concept of the Alaska Class ferries is to reduce jobs in the ferry system, saying about 200 jobs would be lost if four Alaska Class ships replaced vessels like the Taku and Malaspina.
Gucker later said it would be "dangerous" to move forward to a second Alaska Class ferry before having a chance to see how the first one works out, citing the difficulties experienced by Alaska’s two fast vehicle ferries.
While the Alaska Class project has driven the ferry-replacement discussions in recent years, it became apparent Tuesday that a different type of ship might be built after the first Alaska Class ferry.
MTAB Chair Robert Venables said that although MTAB might encourage an option to get a maximum price guarantee on two or three Alaska Class ships, there’s at least an acknowledgement that the AMHS ferry Tustumena that serves the Aleutian Chain is likely in need of replacement. He asked Neussl about the funding process and what the next steps might be.
Neussl said the Legislature has appropriated $50 million to the state’s vessel replacement fund, but had not authorized spending from that fund toward another vessel.
"We are well aware that the Tustumena is 49 years old," Neussl said. "It’s had a tough life out in the Aleutians. We are well aware of the need for a design process on that ship. ... So we’ll see how that process works out in terms of budgeting and appropriations for a design start for a replacement for the Tustumena."
The discussion that followed focused on whether AMHS had a planning document that outlines which vessels need to be replaced next.
Neussl said there is pre-planning being done, but there’s not a "hard and fast" schedule because of a variety of factors. MTAB members expressed interest in developing a long range planning process that would help them advocate for vessel replacements with the governor and legislators.
MTAB Member Mike Korsmo said that moving forward with potentially replacing the Tustumena is a good idea.
Venables said designing the Tustumena replacement now would be a worthwhile endeavor for whenever the ship could actually be built.
The Tustumena is unique among the AMHS ferries in that it is an ocean-class vessel with a vehicle elevator and a shorter 300-foot length that enables it to get into all of the ports on the Aleutian Chain. The ocean-class ferry Kennicott has a vehicle elevator, but its 382-foot length prevents it from serving some ports.
The planning process for the next replacement vessel, and long range planning overall, are expected to be on the agenda for the next MTAB meeting, tentatively being scheduled for January.
MTAB Vice Chair Mark Eliason said that a lot of the MTAB role is to "force the issue of looking farther out" in regard to long-range planning.
"It doesn’t mean things won’t evolve or change over time, but it sure seems to me like that's something the board should continue to focus on," said Eliason, who was attending the meeting via teleconference.