December 20, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 51

Mayor joins outcry against changed ferry plan

Haines Borough officials say they were left in the dark regarding a recent, abrupt decision by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to change plans for the Alaska Class Ferry.

Parnell announced Dec. 4 the Alaska Marine Highway System would pursue plans to construct two smaller, less expensive ferries rather than a single, larger one. Parnell said it became apparent during the design phase that the in-state construction of a 350-foot Alaska Class Ferry would exceed the $120 million budget by $30-$50 million.

Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott said in addition to receiving virtually zero details about the two smaller ferries, she is alarmed by the “absolute lack of a public process” in the decision. “Nobody was involved, that we can find, in this decision,” Scott said.

“I don’t know how big they are. I don’t know what their vehicle capacity is. I don’t know what route they’re planning. I don’t have any idea. Whereas all of those elements were designed in a public process into the Alaska Class Ferry and everybody had a part. Whether or not they got what they wanted, they had a part to play, and it was a very public process,” Scott said.

Borough manager Mark Earnest said he understood the new plan would involve two “shuttle” ferries that would transport passengers between Haines and Juneau or Juneau and Skagway, meaning individuals wanting to travel from Haines to Skagway would either have to drive or take two ferries connecting in Juneau.

“I think this came as a surprise to a lot of the folks at the Department of Transportation that we work with. They had no idea this was coming,” Earnest said.

In a Dec. 11 email to Commissioner of Transportation Pat Kemp, Scott asked Kemp for any information he might have on the reasoning behind the sudden and unexpected decision. Scott also stated the borough would like to be involved in the redesign.

“We are going to assemble a paper that discusses the information and key points that led to the decision. I think once you see the information you will understand the rationale. I also think the residents of Haines will be very happy with the increased flexibility in traveling, the capacity and the efficiency with shuttle ferries,” Kemp said.

Scott said she is especially concerned about the repeated reference to the two smaller ferries as “shuttles,” which would imply ferries featuring stripped-down services and amenities.

Michael Neussl, deputy commissioner of the ferry system, said during a Dec. 14 teleconference that the two ferries will be minimalist models so as to conserve cost. That would mean little to no food service, no crew quarters, no quiet room, a single elevator and other reductions in services.

“We have a vague understanding of what the governor is proposing and he continues to use the word ‘shuttle.’ And we don’t know what that means. But we don’t define a four-and-a-half hour trip as a shuttle. We’re not even sure that a trip between Haines and Skagway, which takes an hour, is a shuttle,” Scott said.

Neussl said the two ferries would be between 250 and 300 feet long.

More puzzling still is the disappearance of the $120 million Alaska Class Ferry budget from the recently released Statewide Transportation Improvement Program amendment, Earnest said.

“The entire ferry project is not in the STIP amendment. That means that that project, for all intents and purposes, would not go forward as planned. So all that work for the Alaska Class Ferry...was an exercise,” Earnest said.

Scott said she proposed to Skagway Borough Mayor Stan Selmer that the two communities draft a joint letter of concern to send to state senators and representatives expressing their concerns about the project.