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Improvements Ahead for the Alaska Marine Highway System

by Jun 16, 2023Magazine, Transportation

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

 

A new skipper is at the helm of the state ferry fleet. After twenty years as general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), Captain John Falvey retired in January. Falvey weathered budget constraints, equipment failures, and new vessels that failed to live up to their promises. His successor in the renamed position of Marine Director, Chris Tornga, must chart a course for the fleet’s nine ferries as construction begins on a new class of ship.

Since AMHS started providing essential transportation to Alaska’s coastal communities in 1963, it has been a critical part of the state’s infrastructure. AMHS connects thirty-five communities—most of which are not on the road system—and provides a means for coastal Alaskans to receive shipments of groceries and other goods. It also provides the opportunity for school children to travel for sports tournaments and social events, and it allows those needing healthcare to travel to urban centers.

In 2023, the Alaska Marine Highway System is undergoing changes to help serve coastal communities more efficiently. In January, the Federal Transit Administration awarded more than $285 million to improve the reliability and service of Alaska’s ferry system. The funds will be used to replace aging vessels, modernize four vessels, procure an electric ferry, design a new mainliner vessel, upgrade ferry dock infrastructure, and generate sustainable operations that could include the construction of a new ferry terminal in Juneau. This funding was made possible by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“The Marine Highway is a uniquely Alaskan transportation network that supports the economies of coastal Alaska and connects our communities to other coastal communities and to our greater highway network,” says Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) Deputy Commissioner Katherine Keith.

Unfortunately, she adds, reinvestment has not kept up with the system’s needs. “Aging vessels and older docks are contributing to expensive repairs, unreliable schedules, and a general decline in service, and reinvestment is critical to the long-term strength of the system and economy of coastal Alaska as a whole,” Keith says. “We are at a unique time in our state’s history in which we have strong support from the governor, legislature, and congressional delegation, as well as funding opportunities to help us revitalize the system and reconnect with the communities we serve.”

Developing Cascade Point

One of the bigger items on the state’s agenda is the possible development of a new ferry terminal facility in Juneau at Cascade Point. In March, Governor Mike Dunleavy signed a memorandum of understanding between DOT&PF and Goldbelt, Inc., Juneau’s urban Native corporation, to explore the feasibility of building a new terminal on Goldbelt-owned land.

In effect, Cascade Point is an alternative to the Juneau Access Project, a proposed terminal at the north end of Glacier Highway to shave 50 miles off the ferry ride between Juneau and Haines or Skagway. State and federal authorities sidelined the project in 2016 and 2018, respectively, preferring no action. Cascade Point is 20 miles closer to the existing terminal at Auke Bay, but subtracting 30 miles from the boat trip would still be significant.

DOT&PF Communications Director Shannon McCarthy figures Cascade Point would shorten the ferry route by about two hours in each direction, saving about 500 gallons of ferry fuel. “The shorter route would reduce operating costs and enhance revenue, and result in a cost savings to customers,” she says.

The savings of time could translate to more service. “When we have heavier volume, the ferry could potentially offer two trips a day instead of one, which would increase our ability to handle more traffic and earn more income,” McCarthy adds. Because the new terminal would work in conjunction with the Auke Bay terminal instead of replacing it, the ability for travelers to get in and out of Juneau would be enhanced.

The MV Lituya (bottom) is the smallest vessel in the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet and the only one dedicated to a single route: shuttle service between Ketchikan and Metlakatla. The MV Tustumena (top) was constructed in 1964 and will be in service next year for its 60th birthday; although plans are in the works to replace Tustumena, construction of the replacement vessel is scheduled for completion in 2025.

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

“If the Alaska-class ferries, sister ships MV Tazlina and MV Hubbard, were doing the Cascade Ferry Terminal route, that would free up our mainliners—the MV Aurora and MV LeConte—to provide additional service to Auke Bay,” says Sam Dapcevich, public information officer for DOT&PF’s Southcoast Region. “Those ships could do short runs to other communities, which would greatly increase our capabilities.”

Goldbelt is beginning feasibility studies that will include environmental work and permitting. DOT&PF will conduct an engineering evaluation and put together cost estimates for the terminal and upland development areas, to be completed in approximately fourteen months.

A public comment period will follow after DOT&PF and Goldbelt determine whether the terminal makes financial sense and if they can meet any environmental or other challenges.

“There are a lot of different viewpoints about developing a new ferry terminal, even among AMHS staff,” says McCarthy. “It’s such a heavily used route that there is real interest in how much time it could save and whether it’s worth the investment.”

A Big Win

While the addition of a ferry terminal at Cascade Point could save travelers—approximately two-thirds of whom are local—both time and money, there are even more important reasons to provide a stable, efficient mode of transportation, according to Goldbelt CEO McHugh Pierre.

“When you look at the transportation needs for this region, the avenues for people and goods and services to move from one place to another have shrunk or been eliminated from our communities,” Pierre says. “What people who don’t live in Southeast Alaska don’t realize is that people in Angoon, Hoonah, Haines, and Skagway have to get to Juneau for medical appointments, and if they can’t physically fly, they need to take the ferry.”

Pierre calls transportation an amenity that any American should have. “The fact that our elders can’t get to medical appointments is unacceptable,” he says.

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While providing communities with more access is the main reason that Goldbelt chose to pursue a new ferry terminal, Pierre suggests that it could have other advantages as well. “I don’t expect that the new route will be a big money-maker, but by providing this opportunity, more people and goods and services will be moving, and that helps to grow the economy across the region,” he says.

“If we have a link to the main road system, we can truck goods in from Canada or Seattle every day,” he adds. “That means fresher and lower-cost produce and dairy, lower-cost building supplies, all brought here more rapidly. It also opens up export possibilities for seafood as well. That would be a big win for the community.”

While local users are expected to make up the bulk of new terminal traffic, if the project comes to fruition, it may also become an option for tourists as well. “We haven’t calculated what the tourism impact would be, but if it allows people to get around more easily, including to other villages, that would be great,” says Pierre. “Especially if it lowers the cost for locals traveling in Lynn Canal.”

According to Dapcevich, these shorter runs have the potential to reduce fares.

While there is no current estimate of the cost, it was estimated in 2020 that the new terminal would cost $36 million. This includes extending Glacier Highway out to reach Cascade Point—a distance of roughly a quarter mile—but does not include the addition of a breakwater for year-round use.

“The original estimate was between $27 million for just summertime operations and $40 million if the state wants to build out and include the breakwater,” says Pierre. “Of course, since then, prices for commodities have drastically increased.”

While the Alaska Marine Ferry System provides opportunities for tourism, it is a critical service for residents in Southeast.

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

A nighttime view of the deck of MV Columbia, the largest vessel in the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet.

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

The view from the prow of MV Kennicott, built in 1998 and designed to transform into a command center for emergency teams responding to an oil spill, an essential asset in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

A new ferry terminal at Cascade Point would require some form of transit into Juneau proper, 27 miles south of the site. “We’ve heard from some people who are concerned about the location being this far from town and wondering how walk-on passengers would get to downtown Juneau,” says Pierre. “Goldbelt currently services the Kensington Mine with a catamaran and bussing service, and we could do that with ferry passengers as well.”

He suggests that walk-on ferry passengers would have a bus ticket into town, and the bus would have multiple drop-off points, such as Auke Bay, the airport, and downtown.

If the project moves forward, DOT&PF would enter into a long-term lease with Goldbelt and be responsible for the terminal and all aspects of upland development, including the parking area. To this end, some state money could be available to help finance the project.

“We talked to the Transportation Committee over the last couple of legislatures, and everyone seems generally supportive,” says Pierre. “The concept is there, but we need to make sure the final details support the overall concept. Everyone agrees that we need to do something to improve the ferry system, as it’s a vital part of our transportation network.”

Maintenance and Other Improvements

As part of the reinvestment in the fleet, MV Tustumena, which was built in 1964, is being replaced. Funding has been approved for a future electric ferry that would likely run between Ketchikan and Metlakatla.

“The Tustumena is sixty years old and operates in some of more challenging conditions in Alaska,” says Dapcevich. “We’re also looking at the feasibility of replacing the Matanuska in the near future, which we may do along with the Tustumena, since they are similar in design.”

DOT&PF plans to secure a shipyard this summer to begin construction of the Tustumena replacement vessel, which is estimated to run in the $200 million to $300 million range. “Both ships are nearing the end of their service life; sixty years is very uncommon for a passenger vessel in the maritime industry,” says Dapcevich.

“The Tustumena replacement vessel and the new electric ferry will help with system reliability, and a reliable fleet of ferries benefits all of coastal Alaska—families and businesses can rely on AMHS costs and timeline to do the work they need to do—and get to where they need to go,” says Keith, adding that this reliability will also enable communities to promote their events in conjunction with the AMHS schedule, increasing the success of their events.

AMHS is also replacing or upgrading ferry terminals, including those in Pelican and Prince William Sound. “We are moving toward more interchangeable dock facilities so that we have the flexibility to have a wider variety of vessels able to serve any given community,” Keith says. “Our goal is truly ‘all vessels, all communities.’”

In March, AMHS also renewed its agreement with the Alaska State Troopers for protection on ferries, which will result in Alaskans seeing an increased law enforcement presence when traveling. The AMHS Ride-Along program provides troopers and their spouses with complimentary travel when they are traveling for personal reasons on a space-available basis.

Inspecting MV Columbia’s propeller. When Columbia was built in 1973, it was the fastest vessel in the fleet and held that distinction until 2004.

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

Connecting Communities

While AMHS hasn’t always received the attention that its users wish it would, the state’s emphasis on improving and enhancing this vital transportation link is expected to position the marine highway to better serve Alaskans now and into the future.

“The importance of Alaska’s coastal highway can’t be overstated,” says McCarthy. “It is used for everything—transporting vehicles, sports teams, households, school groups. While it connects coastal communities in terms of economics, it also connects them by community. People travel to music fests, athletic events, and access shopping, healthcare, and education by using the ferry system.”

To this end, DOT&PF is working hard to engage with Alaska residents to get their input on the ferry system and to be transparent with its plans. Its website Charting the Course is a place where residents can provide feedback, and DOT&PF is also working on a year-round baseline schedule that will be published in the near future.

“Southeast and Southwest communities have grown up around the ferry system over the last six decades, and when you talk to people in Alaska who lived here before AMHS began, you can see what a vital part of their lives it is,” says Dapcevich. “When those first three ships went online in 1963, it opened up the world.”

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Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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