Delays to Matanuska repairs mean limited ferry service likely to persist across Southeast Alaska

First engineer Tom Robinson, of Wrangell, looks around the engine room of the Matanuska on Friday, February 7, 2020 at the Auke Bay ferry terminal in Juneau, Alaska. The ship’s breakdown has left most of Southeast Alaska without ferry service. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Service on the state ferry Matanuska may not resume in early March as repairs to the fleet’s sole operating mainliner have yet to begin.

The Matanuska broke down last month stranding hundreds of passengers and hasn’t yet made the trip to the shipyard for repairs.

Transportation officials had said Matanuska was projected to return to service on March 2. But the ship remains tied up in Juneau’s Auke Bay and now travel agents are being informed that the March date was optimistic.

“We got a call from the Petersburg terminal with its cancellation notice of two sailings in March,” said David Berg, co-owner of Viking Travel in Petersburg, on Thursday. “And we were advised that there was nothing to book them on until perhaps the Columbia comes online in mid-April.”

Officials with the Alaska Department of Transportation didn’t immediately comment on the March cancellations Thursday.

Berg has been in the travel business for almost 40 years. He said ferries breaking down and sailings being canceled have long been common.

“But in this instance there’s not another vessel that is ready,” he said. “This is certainly nothing that we’ve ever seen before.”

The ferry Tazlina is slated to return to service for sailings in Upper Lynn Canal and villages including Hoonah and Angoon.

But without a mainliner ferry, communities like Petersburg, Wrangell, and Sitka join other coastal communities without service.

Top state officials insist they’re working to get one of the few remaining ferries in the Alaska Marine Highway fixed but that ship has been tied up in Juneau’s Auke Bay for about three weeks since a recently installed reduction gear failed.

Vigor Alaska — which was contracted to service the ship — says its technicians have been working to find the root cause of the failure since the fault was detected on January 23. The company doesn’t know if the gear box failure is related to the company’s work or is due to defective parts from the state’s chosen supplier of those parts.

“As (a) longtime contractor to AMHS, we affirm our commitment to cooperatively seeking ways to return the M/V Matanuska to service as soon as reasonably possible,” Jill Mackie, Vigor’s senior vice president for public affairs, wrote in a statement Thursday.

“It is important to note, the components in question are custom built and parts are not readily available off the shelf,” Mackie added. “There is substantial lead time to get the necessary replacement parts. “

Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon had told reporters a day before that there’s “finger pointing” between Vigor Alaska’s shipyard and the manufacturer of the defective equipment. In the meantime, he suggested the state’s hands were somewhat tied.

We’ve got to be careful of our involvement in it because there’s warranty issues,” MacKinnon said Wednesday during a joint press conference with the governor, “and if we get too involved, we can void warranties and that could be a very expensive thing.”

Governor Mike Dunleavy then added that his administration was committed to getting the ship back in service.

“We’re pushing them to get this thing repaired and fixed,” Dunleavy said Wednesday. “And we’re not going to accept excuses that they’re squabbling as our people are waiting for transportation. So, we’re going to keep putting the screws on these outfits.”

Following a $41 million overhaul that included new engines, the Matanuska re-entered service late last year. Its breakdown left only the Lituya — a shuttle ferry running between Metlakatla and Ketchikan — as the only vessel running in the fleet.

That’s led to hardships across the region as communities are cut off. Shortages of food and other essentials are reported in remote communities with few alternatives to state ferry service.

CoastAlaska’s Jacob Resneck in Juneau contributed to this story.