The ferry Hubbard heading heading into Haines on Sunday, April 21, 2024 in Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

Problems with the Alaska Marine Highway System’s operations and aging fleet are so acute that marketing efforts to potential visitors outside Alaska are being intentionally scaled back, Marine Director Craig Tornga said during an online open house meeting on Monday.

“Because of our reliability with the fleet we have consciously pulled back our advertising in the Lower 48 because we just disappoint people right now,” he said during the hour-long event advertised as an overview of the ferry system’s pending long-range plan for the next 20 years. “When you make your vacation plans, and this is just part of the trip and there’s something on the back end, and then we have an issue and we delay it’s a hard part of our management having to deal with those changes and let the public know of the issue. And so we’ve pulled back until we get the fleet upgraded, and we can be reliable and something that everybody can count on for making those plans.”

That comment was among several by Tornga acknowledging AMHS is continuing to struggle with repairs, workforce shortages and other problems. Participants in the open house — including some state lawmakers and other public officials in communities along the ferry routes — also confronted him with specific and recent examples of people who’ve been adversely affected.

“I was in Kodiak for about 30 hours this weekend and I got about six phone calls because people were trying to make reservations and — guess what — the reservation lines are out of order, ” said Rep. Louise Stutes, a Kodiak Republican. “When are we going to do something so the average Joe can call up and make a reservation?”

Furthermore, the website “is not a user-friendly site…I have difficulty and I end up always going down to the ferry office because your site is so user-unfriendly,” she said.

Tornga said he wasn’t aware the reservations system was down during the weekend, but officials are aware of issues with it due to customer feedback and “we definitely have to make improvements.”

Praise about the ferry system’s functionality years ago as both essential transport and a tourism lure was mixed with concern about ensuring the needs of locals get first priority while current operations are limited, in comments made by Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a Sitka independent.

“Back in the day we had Forest Service staff on board who acted as naturalists and would help interpret what folks were seeing on the ferry,” she said. “And the beauty of back in the day was that all vessels were working and all vessels were staffed. And so it was great to reach out and include the educational component and the tourism component, and the system was a lot healthier at that time.”

However, with the current situation, “I just want to speak for the folks who live here in Southeast Alaska who are trying to get to medical and that kind of thing,” Himschoot added. “So from my perspective as a representative for 18,000 constituents and coastal communities it’s really important to me that we take care of those folks first with the sort of, so to speak, crippled system that we have.”

Maintenance on the current fleet is behind schedule on multiple vessels, Tornga said while providing an update on their status in his opening remarks.

“It’s been a long winter for us in the shipyards — too much time in the yard — but that’s what you get with an old fleet,” he said.

Repairs to the Columbia have been ongoing since the beginning of the year and are expected to continue at least through July, Tornga said.

“Again, it’s associated with wasted steel,” he said, referring to a problem on other decades-old vessels. “Especially their fire main and a lot of piping — a few hundred feet of it — with a lot of interferences going through bulkheads that we have to replace. But it’s 50-year-old pipe and it’s exposed to saltwater all the time.”

The Kennicott is filling in on the route between Alaska and Bellingham, Washington, although that vessel is scheduled for major maintenance involving the replacement of both generators next January in Puget Sound, Tornga said.

“That will be a fairly long project, nine to 10 months,” he said. “We haven’t got the complete schedule from the yard yet, but that’s the preliminary estimate.”

Work on the LeConte is a couple of months behind schedule and ferry officials are working with the U.S. Coast Guard to complete only the repairs necessary for it to fulfill safety requirements, Tornga said.

“We’ll have to come back in in the fall and complete the car deck repairs,” he said.

Tornga said similar work is being done on the Tustumena in the hope it can resume service along the Southcentral and Southwest coasts beginning May 9.

“We’re not getting all of it completed at the shipyard, but we’re getting everything that’s required by the Coast Guard for the safety of the vessel,” he said. “Some of this they’ve allowed us to push off until next year, thankfully.”

For the “good news” portion of his remarks, Tornga said about 80% of the functional design work is complete on a new vessel to replace the Tustumena, funding for which was recently secured in the Alaska Statewide Transporation Improvement Plan. Other major upcoming projects include a low/no-emissions hybrid ferry for southern Southeast communities, as well as terminal upgrades a several ports including Pelican, Angoon and Kake.

An anonymous participant submitted a question asking “has a cost-benefit analysis been done of doing such extensive repairs to old ships? It strikes me that it would be more economical to commission new vessels.”

Tornga’s reply: “There’s no argument there.”

“There’s a timeframe for new vessels,” he said. “So when we’re at a minimum for providing the service we have, unfortunately we’re in a position where we have to continue to work what we have until we can replace it.”

Efforts are also being made to resolve employee recruiting and retention, including outreach to schools, Tornga said.

“We’ve got to focus on getting into the high schools, start introducing the maritime industry as a career,” he said. “And then do all we can to provide the training for them and doing the pre-work that needs to be done to start working in the maritime industry.”