Delayed ferry heads for Unalaska despite government shutdown threat

The Alaska state Ferry Tustumena spent at least five extra days off the water and missed its first scheduled sailing earlier this month, and it is headed for Unalaska this weekend. But it’s still unclear what a possible state government shutdown could mean if the legislature fails to fund a budget by the start of the next fiscal year.

Jeremy Woodrow is a spokesman with the Alaska Department of Transportation. He says repairs were made to a water main line essential in the event of a fire on the Tustumena.  He said pieces of steel in the car deck on the 51-year old ship were also replaced.

Courtesy of Nancy Heise
Courtesy of Nancy Heise

“Those are just items that come along with the age of the vessel,” said Woodrow. “That actually emphasizes why we’re working on designing a replacement for the ferry and we’ll actually be working on replacing the Tustumena in the near future.”

Woodrow said a final design for a replacement ship should be completed by the end of December.

But whether a new ferry becomes a reality is in question. In February, the legislature proposed a 10 percent reduction in funding to the ferry system.

In response, earlier this month, Governor Bill Walker transferred $5.5 million dollars from this year’s fuel fund to next year’s operating budget for the ferry system.  That money was included in a spending plan lawmakers already passed.

But as legislators continue to spar of the state’s budget, Woodrow says it’s unclear what might happen to the ferry system if Alaska’s state government shuts down.

“It’s too early to say whether the ferry system will or will not be impacted,” he said.  “It’s a process that’s unprecedented and therefore we’re going through new territory in terms of what can and can’t be done.”

Woodrow says the Department of Transportation is working with the Governor’s administration to identify ‘essential services.’