Over the past few years, the Alaska Department of Transportation has shrunk the mainline ferry capacity of the Alaska Marine Highway System to a perilous point where no "slack" remains.
DOT jettisoned the mainline ferry Taku in 2018, followed by the ferry Malaspina in 2022.
That leaves three mainliners that operate in Southeast Alaska — the Kennicott, Columbia and Matanuska. A fourth mainline ferry, the Tustumena, is dedicated to Southwest Alaska.
This past week, DOT announced that the Matanuska was going to remain out of service, mostly, and initially because of an unanticipated amount of corroded steel discovered on the vessel during its current overhaul at the Ketchikan Shipyard.
DOT estimated that the steel replacement and some asbestos abatement work would raise the overhaul cost — originally planned for about $1.5 million — up to between $8 million and $10 million.
That's not the only cost factor in the calculations for the Matanuska.
According to the DOT announcement, DOT and AMHS are "considering pursuing an extended overhaul to address the steel and abatement issues in addition to egress issues in the Matanuska's original design, including revising dead-end corridors, and upgrading the ship's fire and smoke detection systems."
Revising the dead-end corridors on the cabin deck and upgrading the fire and smoke detection systems would keep the ferry compliant with the international Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requirements that allow the Matanuska to provide service to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. According to Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board minutes, the cost for that work has been estimated in the $30 million-$40 million range.
"Due to the extent of work required, and the need to further assess and estimate vessel repair and rehabilitation costs over the coming months, the Matanuska will be used as a hotel ship for AMHS staff while this important work is conducted," stated the DOT announcement.
Originally scheduled to return to service late this month, the Matanuska will be replaced by the Columbia — which had been out of service since 2019 as a cost-containment measure — for the remainder of the winter-spring schedule. The Matanuska also is not listed on the proposed summer schedule that runs through the end of September.
What does that mean? For the foreseeable future, AMHS has two operable mainline ferries for Southeast Alaska. If the Columbia and Kennicott can sail problem-free for the next eight months, at least, super. They must. There's no standby vessel to cover a breakdown.
As Katherine Keith, DOT's new deputy commissioner who oversees AMHS, said in the announcement: "This underscores the continued need to build redundancy into the system — we need vessels that can take over routes if one of our ships requires an extended repair, like we had in this case."
Which is what many, many people have been saying over and over and over for years now. But does DOT have a serious replacement program for mainline vessels such as the Matanuska, Columbia and Kennicott — which have an average age of about 43 years within a range of 60 years (Matanuska) to 24 years (Kennicott)?
The real answer is no.
DOT has a replacement program underway for the Tustumena, but the duration of that endeavor to date does not inspire confidence that a replacement mainliner for Southeast Alaska, Bellingham and ports served by the Kennicott is anywhere over the near horizon.
At this point, the Matanuska's future is not clear. What is clear is that there's no more slack available to keep the mainline system operating at a minimum level if the Columbia or Kennicott have an extended outage. If the Matanuska does not return, there's no replacement vessel on the way.
It's sad to see what was once such a vital, dynamic contributor to Alaska's transportation system and economy reduced to such dismal circumstances by a state political system and DOT management structure that clearly has little clue about long-term management of a maritime transportation asset like AMHS.
We wish the AMHOB well in its efforts to develop a long-range plan. We hope DOT will provide the support for the board to do its work rather than DOT ordering up another round of "studies" in which consultants simply read all of the previous studies and add to the growing pile.
AMHS and all of Alaska needs a long-range plan and ferry system operating structure that can work, and soon. Time, and available ferries, are becoming scarce.