Several communities in Southeast Alaska lost ferry service this winter when the Alaska Marine Highway System docked the M/V Leconte for expensive repairs.
Some elected officials and advocacy groups in Southeast are pushing the state to deploy the M/V Tazlina to make up for the reduced sailings.
The Leconte and the Aurora were scheduled to provide winter ferry service to several communities in Southeast Alaska this year. Both are docked while the Alaska Marine Highway System assesses repair costs for the ships. That leaves Haines and Skagway with only one ferry a week and several communities in Southeast with no ferry service over the winter.
Rep. Sara Hannan of House District 33 said that is not acceptable.
“We need to have something else functional while those vessels are offline,” Hannan said. “We got boats in drydock because we’ve decided that they’re too expensive to operate or they’re not ready to be in service.”
The Tazlina is one of two new Alaska Class ferries that aren’t running right now. AMHS pulled the Tazlina from service this winter in order to equip it with new side doors. The state is still negotiating the contract to complete that work.
The Haines Chamber of Commerce, the Haines Economic Development Corporation and the mayors of both Haines and Skagway think the project should be postponed. They wrote letters to the Alaska Marine Highway System requesting that it deploy the Tazlina this winter to make up for service reductions.
Haines Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Margaret Friedenauer said that it’s a cost-effective solution to make up for lost sailings.
“Since we understand it costs less to operate than the Leconte, we thought that was a very good option,” Friedenauer said. “Bringing the Tazlina back online, delaying that capital improvement project with the doors to fill in some of the schedule left empty by the Leconte and just the winter schedule in general.”
While the Tazlina could step in to serve some communities in Southeast, it can’t tie up to the docks in some smaller communities like Angoon, Tenakee Springs or Pelican. There are no ferry trips to those communities scheduled this winter.
State Sen. Jesse Kiehl said he would still like AMHS to deploy the Tazlina even if it can’t serve all the communities affected by service reductions.
“If it’s no boat, or a boat to most communities, it’s not a tough choice,” Kiehl said.
The Alaska Marine Highway System’s budget was cut by about half this year. Senator Kiehl said that makes it difficult to mitigate disruptions in service caused by an aging fleet of ships.
“The marine highway is trying to run on the barest of bare-bones budgets, and the assumption built into that budget is that everything will go right,” Kiehl said. “That leaves no buffer when things go wrong.”
Sam Dapcevich, the public information officer for AMHS, said officials are exploring options for service. He said the timing of the Tazlina’s side door project needs to be taken into account.
Dapcevich said AMHS will not make any decisions about bringing ships back online until officials know the cost of the repairs for the Aurora. Those estimates are expected by Nov. 15.