Fast ferry’s future sailings uncertain

The fast ferry Fairweather docks at Juneau’s Auke Bay Ferry Terminal in 2013. It’s been sailing since 2004, but could be retired later this year. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The Alaska Marine Highway System appears to be phasing out its fast ferries. One is in long-term storage and the other will join it this fall.

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Sitka resident Mim McConnell’s family car has an ignition problem. The dealer is in Juneau and only way to get it there — the ferry system – doesn’t sail very often anymore.

“I cannot affordably get that car over to Juneau to get it repaired and then get it back here,” McConnell said. “There’s no quick turnaround, for one thing. So I haven’t even bothered getting it fixed.”

The realtor and former Sitka mayor is one of many coastal Alaskans dependent on the marine highway system. She’s among those who’ve come to appreciate the fast ferries, which shorten sailings, allowing such a trip to happen in a day or two.

McConnell said that’s helped sports teams, school clubs and others needing a quick turnaround, which saves lodging and meal costs.

“Having affordable access on and off an island, that’s huge,” she said. “That can have a tremendous economic impact on a community.”

Fast ferry service has become less frequent in recent years.

Soon, it will be gone altogether.

A pair of slower, short-run Alaska Class Ferries will begin sailing next year.

“Once we have two new ships, it’s very difficult budget-wise to maintain the existing fleet,” Capt. John Falvey, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, said.

The ferry system reduced sailings because of funding cuts.

The fast ferry Fairweather will sail its usual Southeast routes this summer, connecting Juneau to Sitka, Haines and Skagway, he said. It will switch to Prince William Sound in the fall, linking Whittier, Valdez and Cordova.

draft fall-winter-spring ferry schedule released Thursday shows it leaving service mid-November. It will be tied up for the winter with no plans for its return.

Falvey said nothing is final.

“We’ll have to see, budgetary-wise, where we are once we get at least one (Alaska Class Ferry) running on May 1, 2019. That’s our goal,” Falvey said.

The two new ferries are being built at the Ketchikan Shipyard.

The Hubbard and the Tazlina will connect Juneau, Haines and Skagway, one of the routes the Fairweather sails.

While it will be laid up, the fast ferry will be kept ready for use. Its sister ship, the Chenega, was also tied up about two and a half years ago. The state paid about $160,000 for the first year the Chenega was in storage.

The state sold another tied-up ship, the Taku, for scrap earlier this year for $170,000.

But Falvey said it has no immediate plans to sell either fast ferry.

“We let all the certificates and everything lapse on the Taku, whereas we’ve got all the high-speed code certificates and things like that in a frozen-type mode on the Chenega,” Falvey said. “We could pretty quickly activate that ship and do the same thing with the Fairweather.”

The first fast ferry began operations in 2004, followed by the Chenega in 2005.

They sail faster because they are compact, lightweight and have more powerful engines than other ships their size.

But they burn more fuel, so they also are more expensive to run than the system’s other small ships.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.