With the Matanuska out of service longer than expected for more repair work, and the state uncertain whether it can bring an idled ferry out of a cost-saving lay-up, the Alaska Marine Highway System is seeking bids from private vessel operators to possibly provide additional winter runs to several Southeast communities, including Wrangell.

The state issued the hurried bid notice on Dec. 31, with proposals due by 2 p.m. Friday.

The state also is advertising for a contractor to help it recruit and hire for the ferry system, which is short on workers at several jobs. The Department of Transportation estimates the contract at $250,000. The bid notice was issued Dec. 23, with responses due Jan. 14, not nearly as rushed as the private ferry service contract.

If the state receives qualified bids from private vessel operators and awards a contract or contracts, the intent is to pay a private operator to call on communities hit by significant service reductions this winter. The Matanuska will be off the job until at least until Jan. 31.

The invitation to bid says the private vessels could be called on “as needed,” through March. The state would have the option of two, one-year renewals of any contracts to cover January through March of 2023 and 2024.

Two other ferries serving Southeast — the Kennicott and LeConte — are scheduled to go to the shipyard in Ketchikan later this month for winter maintenance, further straining the ferry system’s ability to call on communities.

The New Year’s Eve bid notice specifies the private vessels must be at least 60 feet long, capable of carrying at least 80 passengers, and have at least one restroom (down from the original bid requirement of two restrooms). The bid requirements do not include carrying vehicles.

The lack of vehicle transport is a significant shortcoming, said state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, who represents Juneau, Haines and Skagway. Moving people is important, he said Monday, but transporting freight is just as essential to communities.

Bidders are asked to provide price quotes and proposed service schedules between Juneau, Haines and Skagway; a separate run between Juneau and Sitka; and a third temporary service route between Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg.

The bid notice does not specify a minimum level of service. And the notice states that the invitation to bid “does not obligate the state” to issue a contract.

The state on Monday amended its original bid notice to drop Coffman Cove and Craig from the program.

Smaller Southeast communities such as Gustavus, Hoonah, Angoon and Pelican are not included in the bid notice.

In its invitation to bidders, the ferry system makes clear it is trying to bring the 3-year-old Tazlina into service to serve Northern Southeast. The ship, built at a cost of about $60 million, has been used sporadically since it was launched, spending most of its life tied to the dock as part of the ferry system’s cost-cutting schedule.

“The Dunleavy administration has tried to sink the Alaska Marine Highway System for three years now,” Kiehl said, adding that the attempt to bring the Tazlina into active service on short notice, while helpful, does not repair the damage of budget and service cuts since Gov. Mike Dunleavy took office in December 2018.

Putting the Tazlina back to work will require assembling a crew on short notice. But if the state can succeed, the ferry would cover Juneau, Haines and Skagway, according to the bid notice, leaving Sitka, Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan for a private operator.

The invitation to bid for helping to recruit ferry workers addresses a long-term problem of staffing stretched thin by service cutbacks, retirements and employees taking jobs elsewhere.

The ferry system has been advertising in newspapers across Alaska for several months to attract more job applicants.

The state wants a contractor to help recruit 10 junior engineers, 15 able-bodied seamen and 18 oilers. The contractor also would be asked to help fill several shoreside jobs, including three vessel construction managers, a passenger services inspector, port engineer and safety management coordinator.

A lack of skilled mariners is not a problem unique to Alaska. Ship operators worldwide report worker shortages.

“We went into a global shortage of mariners,” Kiehl said.

The ferry system was short about 125 workers last summer, down about 25% from what it needs to keep its full fleet operational and accommodate sick leave and other vacancies.

“We’ve had a slow progression of loss of crew over the years,” John Falvey, the system’s general manager, said last summer. “COVID has not helped us.”

Starting wage for a steward aboard the state ferries is $21.36 per hour for the Alaska-based jobs.