Destination of Nearly Complete Ferry Remains Unclear

Work on the ice breaking ferry Susitna is nearing completion, and Matanuska Susitna Borough officials are scrambling to find a place to put the vessel when it arrives. The Borough Assembly is considering a number of ideas as to how to cope with the financial obligations of  storing the ferry over winter.

The ferry project has been a priority of the Matanuska Susitna Borough administration for years.  The keel was laid in August of 2006 at Alaska Ship and Drydock in Ketchikan. Now the completed vessel will be ready for delivery sometime between now and the end of the year, according to Borough manager John Moosey. But the Borough has not built any landings for the ship yet, on either side of Knik Arm, so the problem is what to do with the ferry when it arrives. Estimates are that it will cost about $1 million a year to drydock the Susitna.

At a meeting two weeks ago, the Borough Assembly considered how the administration could reduce the operating costs of storing the Susitna while filling its obligations to the Federal Transit Administration and the Office of Naval Research. Both federal agencies are involved with the one of a kind catamaran, dubbed an expeditionary or E-craft.  Moosey says it’s doubtful now if the ferry will be making any money for the Borough anytime soon.

The Borough Assembly has directed Moosey to gather more information on eight specific areas:  obviously, seeking additional grants for ferry landings is one of them. Moosey says the Borough has $7 million earmarked for a landing on the Borough side.

The snag has always been an Anchorage landing spot. The Borough and the municipality have never come to agreement on exactly where the Susitna could safely unload its cars and passengers in the traffic congested Port of Anchorage area. Steve Ribuffo is deputy director of the Port of Anchorage.

Ribuffo says the Borough, after months of talks, decided not to land the boat at the Port.

Other options for a ferry resolution are more intriguing.  One would sell the ship, than have it leased back to the Borough. Whichever entity owns the vessel also owns the intellectual property that goes with it. The Borough owns 50 percent of the intellectual property assigned.

The saga of the Susitna is a long and complicated one.  Initial cost estimates ranged from $44 to $58 million, for the ship alone. Final costs are more like $71 million. The Navy picked up the tab, because Office of Naval Research Sea and Warfare and Weapons Department looks on the vessel as the forerunner of the Navy’s next generation of ships. The Susitna embodies five new technologies, it is a high speed, ice breaking catamaran that can transition into a barge, and has shallow draft landing craft capabilities, all of them in line with a Navy plan involving sea basing.

Navy researchers would collect data on operations for five years while the Mat Su Borough operates the ship in Cook Inlet weather conditions.

But the immediate problem is where to put the ship until its ferry runs start.  The Borough is currently working on lease agreement with private companies.

One other option discussed at the August meeting: incorporating the ferry into the state’s Alaska Marine Highway system.

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