State eyes private ferries for Angoon, Hoonah and Kake

The M/V LeConte ferry docks in Haines in 2018. (Photo by Berett Wilber/KHNS)

The state is seeking to fill gaps in Southeast Alaska ferry service using a private charter company. It’s given potential operators less than 24 hours to answer its Monday call for interest.

The public notice seeks ships capable of ferrying 125 passengers between Juneau’s Auke Bay terminal and Hoonah, Angoon and Kake. The communities aren’t scheduled to receive a state ferry until March.

Read our continuing coverage of the state’s ferry service problems in Southeast Alaska

Regional transportation spokesman Sam Dapcevich says the state agency is exploring alternatives to the Alaska Marine Highway System’s fleet.

“AMHS wants to see if there’s competition in the marketplace for this type of service this time of year and how much it would cost,” Dapcevich told CoastAlaska on Monday.

Hoonah Mayor Gerry Byers says his small city is having a tough time without regular ferries. There’s no barge service and getting vehicles and goods back and forth is putting the squeeze on the island town 40 miles southwest of Juneau.

“I think it’s a good step by the state to try to help support the community,” Byers said Monday. “Even if it’s just just passengers being able to leave.”

Bad weather constantly cancels floatplanes, making it tough for people to reach Alaska Airlines jets flying out of Juneau, he added.

But none of the officials in the three city offices contacted by CoastAlaska say they had any idea that private ferries might be in the works. Byers says DOT has not coordinated with the villages and this was the first he’d heard of the scheme.

“It is nice that they’re thinking of us,” he said of the state transportation agency. “It’s just, I wish we’d had a little more planning and a little more — giving the businesses more time to work on this.”

Last month the state chartered a pair of privately-owned vessels from Sitka-based Allen Marine. That was to ferry passengers stranded after the state ferry Matanuska broke down in Juneau on its way to Haines and Skagway.

It remains sidelined until at least the end of the week.

The city of Angoon also chartered Allen Marine boats late last year. That cost the small city around $8,000.

The deadline for potential charter operators to respond to the state’s request for interest is the close of business Tuesday. Long service gaps driven by budget cuts have cut off a number of communities around Alaska, including in Prince William Sound the Southeast island hamlets of Pelican and Tenakee Springs.

No other communities have been included in the request for information. The public notice asks for service to begin as early as this week.

But Dapcevich says that was apparently a mistake.

“It was not meant for actual service this week,” the agency spokesman said. “It was meant for an information-gathering public notice.”

A $250,000 study commissioned by the Dunleavy administration on the future of state ferries had found privatization of ferry routes without subsidies would not be feasible. But it did say smaller ships could service some routes on a contract basis.

“With longterm contracts, private entities would likely be able to develop appropriately sized vessels that are better matched to the demand for services to/from smaller communities,” the consultants wrote.