People who lived on Prince of Wales Island in the 1990s may recall the late night and early morning arrivals and departures of the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries in Hollis, and subsequent declining service. Regular, daily ferry service between Prince of Wales and Ketchikan seemed an impossible dream.
But three Ketchikan men, frustrated with getting to and from Prince of Wales for work purposes, began talking about how to make that dream come true. Their initial vision, along with the determined efforts of numerous community and state leaders, would lead to formation of the Inter-Island Ferry Authority, and the construction of the two ferries that provide that regular, daily service today.
The IFA is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its first ferry-service voyage this month. The Authority was formed in 1997 and its first vessel, the M/V Prince of Wales, set sail on its maiden voyage between Hollis and Ketchikan on Jan. 13, 2002, according to historical information provided by IFA General Manager Ron Curtis.
Dating back as early as 1994, Ketchikan-based economists Kent Miller and C.L. Cheshire, along with consultant Jim Van Altvorst, pitched their idea of an alternative ferry system that would operate independent of the state, to then Craig City Administrator Tom Briggs and Craig Mayor Dennis Watson. Briggs “bought off on it immediately,” the former mayor said in a recent phone interview.
The City of Craig served as home base for the project initially, said both Van Altvorst and Watson. The City of Craig provided funding for the consultants to apply for federal funding for the project, plus access to legal counsel when needed.
“I don’t know if any of this could have happened had it not been for the City of Craig stepping in,” Van Altvorst said in a phone interview.
Watson and Briggs, joined by the three Ketchikan consultants, visited individual communities on Prince of Wales, gathering support for the idea that began with forming a port authority, which would be the first of its kind in the state under the 1992 Alaska Municipal Port Authority Act. The Authority would consist of those member communities who wanted a voice in the management of the ferry system. To join, each community needed to pass a referendum by public vote.
“In the beginning we weren’t sure about anything other than we wanted to make it work,” Watson said.
“When you’re doing something and everybody’s telling you you’re crazy, it’s a tough uphill battle,” he added.
Watson later would serve on the IFA board as a member, chair and, for six years, general manager. Briggs also would serve as general manager.
Van Altvorst focused on formation of the port authority, while Miller became project manager and Cheshire researched the socio-economic implications of the ferry on the population it would serve, Watson said.
Cheshire’s research would prove invaluable, not only to encourage community support, but when seeking funding as well, said Van Altvorst.
The Authority held its first meeting with membership from Coffman Cove, Craig and Thorne Bay in May 1997. Klawock, Petersburg and Wrangell joined later that year.
The first board of directors included Craig representative Otis Gibbons, Klawock representative Jeffrey Nickerson, Thorne Bay representative Harvey McDonald, Coffman Cove representative DeeDee Jeffreys, and Briggs as the at-large member. Joleen Edenshaw would later represent Hydaburg, while Judy Bakeburg would represent Wrangell, and Dewey Duval, Petersburg.
The current board still includes Nickerson, McDonald and Gibbons, with Brian Wilson representing Coffman Cove, Sam Mooney representing Hydaburg and Doug Rhodes of Craig serving in the at-large seat.
“I have enjoyed being a part of the IFA because of its success and it’s something the people need,” said Nickerson, who is the current chair, in an email message.
“Now, for the past twenty years we have a ferry every day and we cannot take that for granted, he added. “I would like my grandchildren to enjoy it for next twenty years, maybe in that time an electric ferry.”
Designing the ferries involved a new round of community meetings, where residents brainstormed with consultants, design experts and community leaders on many features, including layout, galley service, comfort, safety, crew size, and type of ferry. The group firmly decided against a fast ferry, due to rough seas between Prince of Wales and Revillagigedo islands, and the frequency of drift wood in Kasaan Bay, which would be difficult to maneuver through and could cause a lot of damage if hit at high speeds, said Watson.
Decisions also were to be made regarding shoreside and docking facilities. A new transfer bridge would be built in Ketchikan just south of the existing state ferry terminal, and new terminals would be built in Hollis and Coffman Cove.
The resulting ferries — the M/V Prince of Wales and M/V Stikine — looked much different than the early conceptual drawings from 1994. The two sister vessels were designed by the Elliott Bay Design Group Ltd. of Seattle and built at the Dakota Creek Industries Shipyard in Anacortes, Washington.
Funding for the IFA vessels and infrastructure was generated through a series of federal and state grants, municipal bonds and loans, according to IFA history. Van Altvorst recalls the seven to eight years of planning that went into construction of the first ferry, including “complicated relations” with two federal agencies — the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration — which each had different construction and design standards for the project. The FTA grant application itself filled a 3-inch, 3-ring binder, but netted more than $6 million for the first ferry.
Construction of the M/V Prince of Wales began in the early 2000s, a 198-foot K-class passenger/vehicle ferry, with both side- and stern-loading capabilities. When it was introduced into service in 2002, it provided two daily round-trips during the summer months and one daily round-trip in the winter.
The IFA’s second vessel, the M/V Stikine went into service in 2006, between Coffman Cove, Wrangell and South Mitkof Island. This service operated for five months in the summer, from 2006-2009, and was eliminated because it had been losing an excessive amount of money, according to IFA history. Petersburg and Wrangell have both since withdrawn from the authority.
Also in 2009, the IFA discontinued the summer double runs on its Hollis-Ketchikan route, also due to cost-effectiveness.
The early IFA organizers anticipated that the ferry system could eventually be run out of the farebox. That has not proven to be possible, and the IFA has had to utilize funding from state and federal sources, Watson said.
According to the 2020 report, “Alaska’s Inter-Island Ferry Authority By the Numbers,” the IFA had a farebox recovery rate of 79% for 2019, higher than the North American rate of 59%. This rate is the percentage of ferry operating costs that are covered by revenue from ticket sales, according to the report published by Rain Coast Data.
“Public transportation systems do not and cannot operate out of the farebox alone,” the report reads.
But in all, those involved past and present, agree the IFA has done well in serving the people of Prince of Wales.
“It was an amazing adventure,” Watson said. “…It’s been a great ride.”
The IFA’s current operations are not quite as broad as once envisioned, for a variety of reasons, Van Altvorst said. Originally, it was hoped the IFA would provide ferry links between several Southeast islands.
“That said, I think it’s a glorious success, certainly from the perspective of the island communities and other areas such as Ketchikan, to be able to engage with and appreciate the island and its resources and communities and vice versa,” he said.
Van Altvorst regularly sees the IFA ferries coming and going, from his Ketchikan home.
“It’s a testament to the ideal vision of all those community leaders that made it all possible.” Van Altvorst said “…I think it’s a great example of what can be done to provide regional transportation that links with other transportation systems, like the AMHS and Alaska Airlines. …It’s tremendously important for economic and social (reasons).”
IFA passengers travel to Ketchikan for health care, business, shopping, sports and other special events. The “2020 By the Numbers” report indicates the IFA generated $19.9 million in economic impact for Prince of Wales in 2019, and $26.5 million for Ketchikan that same year.
Watson also noted the IFA has provided stable employment, where rotating crew can come home every night, and work a four-on, three-off work week.
The IFA has survived many a storm, including the COVID-19 pandemic and mechanical difficulties of its own.
“I have to hand it to Ron Curtis,” said Watson of his successor, who has been general manager for the last two-and-a-half years. “COVID was one of the heaviest lifts. Making it through the ongoing craziness, keeping things together — I am really happy with what they have been able to do.”
After 20 years on the IFA Board of Directors, Nickerson is in no hurry to leave.
“One thing I will say is all of our general managers, board members past and present have made it easy to sit on this board, I cannot give them enough credit,” he wrote in an email message.
“I will be City of Klawock’s rep as long as they let me,” he added.
Curtis acknowledges the challenges the IFA has faced, including that of securing one of the only Buy America waivers issued during the Trump administration in order to repair IFA vessels, he wrote. The IFA team, the communities and state legislators were integral and special as well, he added.
“We all have worked together to overcome each and every challenge. I am humbled by the collective efforts that have contributed to our 20 years of success,” he said.
Today’s Inter-Island Ferry Authority provides one daily round-trip between Hollis and Ketchikan. The IFA carried approximately 44,200 passengers and 10,000 vehicles between Hollis and Ketchikan in 2019, according to the 2020 report. Its main offices are in Hollis, with finance offices in the WestWind Plaza in Craig.
On occasion, the IFA also fills in for the Alaska Marine Highway System’s Lituya ferry, with service between Ketchikan and Metlakatla.
In addition to Miller, Cheshire, Van Altvorst, Watson and Briggs, the IFA’s list of founders includes former Ketchikan public relations specialist Len Laurance, Washington lobbyist Steve Silver, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and Alaska Congressman Don Young. Watson added former State Sen. Robin Taylor of Wrangell, as also securing funding for the IFA, and as strong proponent of the IFA’s northern route in its formation.
Curtis said he appreciates the efforts of those founders.
“Dreamers change the world so, I would be remiss to not say, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the Founders of the IFA. They worked tirelessly to establish this service. They saw a problem, defined it, designed a solution, acted upon it and MADE IT HAPPEN,” Curtis wrote.