Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Only mainline ferry canceled until March


February 6, 2020 | View PDF

March 1 is now the earliest the Matanuska will be up and running, the Department of Transportation announced in a press release Wednesday evening. February sailings have been canceled while the vessel returns to the shipyard in Ketchikan for further troubleshooting.

Casey Thomsen, an employee at the Haines ferry terminal, said he spent Wednesday morning calling passengers and refunding tickets. He said it was the fourth time he had made such calls this winter.

The department said it “is exploring options for alternative service in the event Matanuska is unable to return to service as planned,” suggesting there will be no ferry options before March.

While February sailings are still listed on the marine highway’s website, the next sailing from Juneau to Haines available for booking is a Tazlina sailing on March 6. The next Matanuska sailing scheduled to arrive in Haines is on March 7.

Assuming these dates don’t change, Haines will have been without a ferry for seven weeks when the Tazlina finally arrives.

Last winter, Haines had roughly three ferries a week. This year, a $43 million cut to the ferry system led to a curtailed winter sailing schedule throughout coastal communities. Kodiak, Seldovia, Angoon, Tenakee Springs, Pelican, and Gustavus are facing multi-month gaps in service. Haines fared slightly better, dropping down to a single ferry a week for the winter. 

And then in late January, the Matanuska broke down, leaving residents in Haines and communities including Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Skagway, and Juneau stranded. The Alaska Marine Highway System, which currently has a 12-ship fleet, is down to a single operational vessel, the 125-passenger Lituya which shuttles between Ketchikan and Metlakatla. 

How do we go from an entire fleet to a single operational ship? Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak asked ferry system officials at a Department of Transportation Finance Subcommittee hearing on Jan. 28. “This didn’t occur overnight.” It was not a single year of budget cuts but years and years of neglect that led to the sorry state of the fleet, she said.

The Alaska Marine Highway System built its operation and overhaul schedule based on last year’s budget, said Mary Siroky, deputy commissioner for the Department of Transportation. The $43 million cut came as a surprise for the department, she said. The combination of a lack of operating funds and an inflexible overhaul schedule led to the current situation, she said.

Every year, each ferry undergoes a scheduled overhaul period and Coast Guard inspection in order to maintain its certificate of inspection, the Coast Guard’s stamp of approval that a vessel meets minimum safety standards, said Nicholas Capuzzi, public affairs officer for Coast Guard sector Juneau. A certificate of inspection is required for the ferry to serve customers. While AMHS could move a vessel’s inspection date earlier in the year, it could not push back the inspection date without risking a lapse in certification, he said.

“In order to renew a ship’s certificate of inspection, you have to test every piece of machinery and alarm; completely shut them down; completely shut off the ventilation system, which involves removing panels; remove the fire doors… It’s impossible to do this inspection while a ship is (actively serving customers),” Capuzzi said.

As a result, AMHS schedules these in-depth inspections so they align with a vessel’s overhaul period, the time it spends in dry-dock in the shipyard for maintenance, Capuzzi said. In the past, AMHS set aside approximately six weeks for a vessel’s annual overhaul period (according to a document describing the Alaska Marine Highway System Vessel Overhaul, Annual Certification and Shoreside Facilities Rehabilitation project for fiscal year 2019).

The Coast Guard’s inspection usually takes three or four days and is conducted toward the end of a vessel’s time in the shipyard, after outstanding issues needed to pass inspection have been fixed, along with any other maintenance issues AMHS elects to fix, Capuzzi said. The Coast Guard’s inspection ensures ships meet the “bare bones for safety,” but we are not concerned with cosmetic issues or long-term maintenance issues like repainting a ship, remodeling the interior, or oil changes, he said.

After the Coast Guard inspects a ship, more often than not, something needs to be fixed, Capuzzi said. The Coast Guard will come back after a day or more to verify that the repair has occurred. In Alaska, a repair that should take a day, can often take a week or more as parts often need to be flown in, he said.

“The ships that are in the shipyard now are, in essence, in their normal time slots,” said Captain John Falvey, general manager for the Alaska Marine Highway System. The certificate of inspection drives when ships go in, but then they end up staying in the yard for a longer period of time due to the amount of repairs needed, he said. A general rule is that it takes a month to accomplish $1 million worth of repairs, he said.

If a certificate of inspection were to lapse, this would create additional hurdles for the ferry system, Capuzzi said. If a certificate of inspection lapses, an even more in-depth inspection is necessary to establish a new certificate. AMHS has many older vessels from the ‘60s and ‘70s. These vessels have parts that are grandfathered in under federal law, he said. If the certificate of inspection for a vessel like the Matanuska or the LeConte lapsed, AMHS would need to either swap out many of the ferry’s parts to meet new standards or apply to the Coast Guard for an exemption, he said. A lapse in a certificate of inspection could cost millions for a single ship, according to DOT.

At present, AMHS has six vessels in the shipyard (not counting the Matanuska). These include: the Tazlina, Hubbard, Kennicott, Tustumena, Columbia, and LeConte. While all are currently undergoing their annual overhaul and inspection process, this was not the original reason the Columbia, Tazlina, and Hubbard were taken out of service.

The Columbia was originally laid up for cost savings because it is the most expensive ship to operate with a crew of 62. The vessel is expected to operate this summer with a skeleton crew of 49, according to DOT.

The Tazlina, scheduled to return to service in March, is undergoing warranty work with an April deadline.

The Hubbard, which has never been in service, is having a new vehicle door installed to facilitate faster loading. This installation is scheduled for completion on March 1. However, the vessel is not scheduled to operate this summer, according to DOT. This is because they don’t have the funds, said Robert Venables, executive director for Southeast Conference and a member of the state’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board, which makes long-term planning recommendations for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The LeConte, Tustumena, and Kennicott are undergoing repairs necessary to maintain their certificates of inspection. The Coast Guard gave AMHS a deadline of March 31 to make repairs to the Kennicott’s propulsion and auxiliary machinery caused by lack of maintenance and the LeConte’s certificate of inspection was set to expire at the end of 2019.

The Tustumena, which has traditionally served communities along the Aleutian chain, is currently “on its last legs,” Sen. Jesse Kiehl said. “Four or five years ago, the legislature appropriated the match needed to replace the Tustumena.” However, steel tariffs drove up the cost of vessel replacement, delaying the process, he said.

The six vessels in the fleet that are not currently undergoing work in the shipyard include: the Lituya and Matanuska, which should both, in theory, be operational; the Aurora and Malaspina, which have been laid up indefinitely because the repairs necessary to pass Coast Guard inspection are more than the state can afford; and the Chenega and Fairweather, which are in the process of being sold.

The Chenega is no longer in active status, according to the Coast Guard. Its certificate of inspection expired in 2017. At the hearing on Jan. 28, Siroky said the department considered bringing the Fairweather back in service, but all the safety equipment had been pulled off. At the time, she said it would take longer to get the safety equipment back on and tested than it will to repair the Matanuska.

Kiehl said the current status of the AMHS fleet is the result of many factors including a lack of operating funds this year, insufficient capital budget funding for vessel maintenance and replacement over the years, and inflexible overhaul schedules, “exacerbated by frankly bizarre management decisions. Putting nine of the vessels capable of making long trips out of commission in the winter with zero available as a back up is not wise management.”

If AMHS had not removed all of the lifesaving equipment from the Columbia when they put the ship in cost-saving layup, “the Columbia could have a crew on her and be running the mainline right now” at minimal increased cost, Kiehl said. The Tazlina would have been another good emergency backup if AMHS had waited to begin taking the ship apart until warranty repairs were underway, he said.

Department of Transportation spokesperson Sam Dapcevich did not respond to questions about which ships could be brought online most easily to cover for the Matanuska as mechanical difficulties persist.

According to news reports, the Matanuska has been experiencing issues with its engine cooling system, a recently installed piece of equipment that is still under warranty. The Department of Transportation’s press release said newly identified issues with the vessel’s reduction gear system led to the decision to return the ship to the shipyard.

In addition to lost ticket revenue and an $11,000 Allen Marine charter for the Upper Lynn Canal, AMHS has continued to pay employees while the Matanuska is out of service.

Ferry system employees are getting paid to work 37.5 hours a week, as specified by their union contracts, said Thomsen, who is one of three employees at the Haines ferry terminal. His workload is a lot lighter with the Matanuska down, he said. Although, he and other employees are staying somewhat busy rebooking and refunding passengers’ tickets for canceled ferries and shoveling snow to keep the dock clear. 

Thomsen said he thinks that underfunding the ferry system is a vicious cycle. It chases traffic away, and then officials will be able to point to the fact that no one is using the system and use that as justification for further cuts, he said.

DOT seems to recognize that current service levels are not sustainable for Southeast communities. On Feb. 3, the department issued a request for interest, soliciting a private charter to transport passengers from Juneau to Hoonah, Angoon, and Kake. And a number of vessels are scheduled to resume service later this year: the Tazlina in March, the Tustumena in May, and the LeConte and Columbia over the summer.

“The fact that many of the boats are very old and there hasn’t been a funding mechanism to replace them is a flaw that’s been recognized,” said Venables. “We need a plan to address the short-term, mid-term, and long-term. It needs to cover not only vessels’ operational repairs but also replacement.”

Venables pointed to the Matanuska and Malaspina as examples. “At some point, we need to stop putting millions into old vessels and replace them.” He said the state would come up with a plan for the marine highway this year but had no answer to where the money for replacements would come from. He said that soliciting input from the public and user groups would be critical to decision making.

The governor’s proposed supplemental budget, released on Wednesday, Feb. 5, contains a little over $7 million in additional funding for AMHS’s operating budget to cover “unforeseen FY2020 expenditures and avoid a reduction in the operating schedule for the spring and summer.” It also includes $5 million in capital funds for vessel overhaul, citing unanticipated repairs for the LeConte, Columbia, Kennicott, and Tustumena.

Before the budget was released, Siroky said the priority for any supplemental funds would be to pay the ferry system’s current bills.

The governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2020 has a $4 million increase in funding for AMHS operating budget. This is only a fraction of the $43 million cut last year and will lead to an operation schedule similar to this year’s, according to DOT.


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