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2/2/2017
NOAA bill includes Fairweather changes
Corroded cross beams snake underneath
the NOAA dock on Wednesday.
                     Staff photo by Taylor Balkom


By NICK BOWMAN

Daily News Staff Writer

After years without progress, Alaska’s junior senator is taking another shot at relocating the research vessel Fairweather to Ketchikan.

The Fairweather is a 231-foot marine mapping vessel that more than a decade ago was assigned its homeport at 1010 Stedman St. in Ketchikan, a few yards north of the U.S. Coast Guard base.

However, the vessel has operated from the Pacific Northwest because of a dilapidated and unsafe local dock facility.

An estimated $14 million construction bill sits between the Fairweather and its Ketchikan homeport, and the vessel’s owner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, maintains it doesn’t have the money to refurbish the dock for the Fairweather and its crew of more than 50 people.

Sen. Dan Sullivan’s bill making broader, Arctic-focused changes within NOAA includes language that requires the agency to come up with a strategic plan for replacing the dock and allows it to use non-federal funds for the project, according to Sullivan’s press secretary, Mike Anderson.

The bill has six co-sponsors, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

The proposals in S. 171 come from state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who has his eye on capital cash within the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

In his Dec. 12 letter to Sullivan, Stedman laid out a proposal that would require NOAA come up with a financing plan — including the use of NOAA operating or capital money or from other sources — to pay for the dock replacement project and would authorize NOAA to accept any non-federal cash for the work.

AIDEA last participated in a federal project similar to the Fairweather dock in 2014, when the state corporation built an addition to the Camp Denali Readiness Center for the Coast Guard at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage.

As an economic development entity, AIDEA may invest in projects to “promote, develop and advance the general prosperity” of Alaskans, according to a 2014 announcement about the JBER project, which created 80 jobs and retained more than 115 Coast Guard and civilian positions in the area.

By that same logic, AIDEA would be contributing to the Ketchikan economy by investing in a project that would relocate the Fairweather crew to its official homeport and potentially boost the business of the Ketchikan Shipyard.

The JBER project cost $15 million, according to AIDEA, and was completed using economic development funds.

Sullivan’s bill was unanimously passed out of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Jan. 24.

The two-year senator said in an announcement that relocating the Fairweather “will cut down on transit time and save precious resources, allowing the vessel to have a greater impact as it completes its important mission off Alaska’s coast.”

The NOAA vessel sails within the Gulf of Alaska and generates nautical maps and charts.

Since 2008, the Fairweather has used the Coast Guard base for short port calls, according to NOAA spokesman David Hall.

NOAA had been partnering with the Alaska Department of Transportation on a joint port facility in Ward Cove that would accommodate both the Fairweather and Alaska Marine Highway System ferries, but NOAA withdrew from that effort in 2016.

Local governments, particularly the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, have spent years lobbying to relocate the Fairweather to Ketchikan.