A recent state Department of Transportation action scrapping plans for the “Alaska-class” ferry for two, smaller shuttle ferries has spawned a series of regional meetings as well as continued questions and criticism from local leaders.

The revised plan stems from an effort DOT started in 2006 aimed at lengthening roads throughout the region and connecting communities by shuttle ferry, including extending a road north of Juneau to Katzehin, according to state DOT Commissioner Pat Kemp.

Kemp and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell have been explaining the changes to groups around Southeast and the Alaska Legislature since the change was announced in December. On Dec. 20, DOT issued a four-page “white paper” on the matter, according to a Dec. 29 story in the Ketchikan Daily News.

“What we’re doing now, we’re basing this vessel on the needs of the Juneau Access Project,” Kemp said, according to the Ketchikan newspaper.

DOT officials, however, say the shuttle ferries will be able to navigate Lynn Canal in winter in the absence of a road.

“If they run to Katzehin or Auke Bay, they’re being designed for Lynn Canal,” said agency spokesman Jeremy Woodrow. Concept design reports on the shuttle – including addressing questions about cost and seaworthiness raised by members of the public and state legislators – are expected to be finalized by the end of February, Woodrow said.

Commissioner Kemp has characterized the 350-foot Alaska-class boat as the product of add-ons during the public hearings process that increased the 2006 price of $30 million to $150 million or more in 2012.

Advocates of the new plan say smaller boats will be less expensive to build and operate, provide jobs including by possibly homeporting in Haines, and increase access by allowing for more frequency of sailings.

Kemp has described the shuttle vessels as between 260 and 300 feet long and able to carry up to 60 cars and 450 passengers. He believes two such vessels could be built for $100 million.

The ships would have the same “seakeeping abilities” of the ferry Taku, including being able to sail between Haines and Juneau when avalanche-control activities in winter force road closures, he said.

Narrower than mainline vessels, the vessels could operate only 12 hours at a time and would not have berths for passengers or crew, according to Kemp’s plan. The ferries would have doors at the bow and stern, allowing even large vehicles to drive onto and off the vessels without maneuvering, saving critical amounts of time and money, advocates say.

“These boats will not only get up and down Lynn Canal better and bring more people up and down Lynn Canal, but they’ll be smaller boats,” Juneau Chamber of Commerce leader Cathie Roemmich testified at a recent hearing of the state House and Senate transportation committees.

Critics of the shift, including Haines Mayor Stephanie Scott, question the seaworthiness of smaller vessels in Lynn Canal, particularly in winter.

“Such a ferry will be a fair weather vessel much like the Chenega and the Fairweather, the ‘fast’ ferries that cannot reliably sail in the Lynn Canal due to the high seas,” Scott said. “If the vessel is not designed to handle the high seas of Lynn Canal … there will be critical times of travel when it simply will not be able to go. It will represent a stranded resource, as do the Fairweather and Chenega.”

A Ketchikan Daily News editorial compared the cost of an Alaska-class boat to the Juneau Road extension project. “The Alaska class ferry price sounds like a good deal compared to the Juneau (road) project.”

The Ketchikan newspaper quoted Kemp describing loss of the “roll-on, roll-off” capacity as the “number one issue” he had with the Alaska-class ferry.

On the Juneau access project, DOT is awaiting a ruling from the federal government on a supplemental environmental impact statement for the project. The federal response is expected by summer.