Cost-cutting will take Alaska’s flagship ferry out of service

The state ferry Columbia will soon sail south for repairs to a damaged propeller. That will leave Southeast with fewer port calls. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
The ferry Columbia ties up in Ketchikan. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The cash-strapped Alaska Marine Highway System plans to tie up its flagship ferry to save money. State transportation officials confirm that the M/V Columbia will not sail past Sept 4th.

“The vessel will remain out of service for the winter and the marine highway system will assess options for future use of the vessel when it looks at the results of the marine highway system economic restructuring analysis,” Alaska Marine Highway System spokeswoman Aurah Landau said in a Monday statement to CoastAlaska.

The 418-foot ferry primarily serves Lynn Canal communities and the Inside Passage routes to Ketchikan, Prince Rupert, British Columbia and Bellingham, Washington.

Landau says the M/V Malaspina and M/V Matanuska are expected to substitute for the larger vessel for a projected monthly cost savings of around $400,000.

“The M/V Columbia is more expensive to operate than other vessels that can substitute for it,” she wrote in a followup statement Tuesday.

The state agency plans to avoid layoffs by assigning the Columbia’s 62 crew members to other vessels in the fleet. But the head of the ferry system’s largest union says the 45-year-old vessel is popular with workers and passengers alike.

“They call her the ‘Queen of the Fleet’ she’s a beautiful ship,” Inlandboatmen’s Union regional director Trina Arnold said Monday. “A lot of the crew members that work there, they’re out there half their life.”

Arnold says there’s concern among ferry workers that continued cost-cutting will make it difficult for the marine highway to fulfill its core mission of connecting communities as the fleet continues to shrink.

“It just feels like we’ve already lost the Taku, we lost the Fairweather and the Chenega,” Arnold said, “and it just seems like we keep losing a vessel, and the communities are hurting for that.”

The Taku was sold for scrap last year. The fast ferries Fairweather and Chenega are in the process of being surplussed and sold.

The legislature appropriated about $40 million less to the ferry system compared to last year. But it’s not yet known where in the system those cuts will affect.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional information on the projected cost savings. It also corrects the spelling of the union’s name.