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Mat-Su ferry: two ports, zero landings

Lisa Demer
The Mat-Su Borough completed its ferry terminal in 2007 but still has no landing for the ferry. Officials had hoped for daily ferry service between Anchorage and Port MacKenzie in 2008.
Daily News archive
Construction was under way in May 2006 on the Mat-Su Borough's ferry terminal at Port MacKenzie.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
The Susitna underwent sea trials near Ketchikan in 2010. The twin hulls dip below the surface, creating the illusion of a ship skating on the water.
CHARLEY STARR / For The Mat-Su Borough
The Port MacKenzie terminal building in summer 2010. The Anchorage skyline can be seen across Knik Arm.
Photo by KEN GRAHAM / For the Mat-Su Borough

All the Mat-Su Borough wanted was a ferryboat. One that would take passengers and vehicles on the short hop across Knik Arm between Port MacKenzie and Anchorage, provide a new way to travel to coastal communities around Cook Inlet, and improve access to undeveloped borough land where business might take root.

Something simple, rugged and reliable, the borough said.

What it actually got is a unique, shape-shifting, ice-breaking, $78 million landing craft named Susitna.

Now the borough is trying to figure out what to do with it, and that isn't proving easy.

To start with, the borough doesn't have a ferry landing. To run a year-round commuter ferry -- the original idea -- it needs at least two, one on the Mat-Su side and one on the Anchorage side. The borough has money to build a single walk-on-only landing at Port MacKenzie. It expects to complete construction of that landing in the summer of 2012.

So, with the commuter ferry option on hold, borough officials are scrambling to find a place and a purpose for the ship.

Because the ship came about as a joint venture with the Navy, and the Navy wanted it classified as a high-speed vessel, the Susitna crew must have more advanced training than for a typical ferry, according to the Coast Guard. Inspection requirements also will be more stringent. While the ship received a waiver allowing it to be classified as high speed, it doesn't actually travel at high speeds.

Borough leaders insist that despite the obstacles a successful ferry operation is just around the corner. For them, the ferry is the realization of a long-held dream of a quick connector to Anchorage.

"It's obvious that we need that link because since the 1950s they've been talking about a bridge across the Inlet," said Elizabeth Gray, assistant borough manager. "And we find the ferry is a great stair step to getting that bridge and proving the need for that bridge."

The Susitna is certainly versatile. Between its twin hulls is a barge deck that can be raised and lowered, transforming it from an ocean-going ship to a landing craft. The unusual design is the product of a complicated civilian-military partnership of the borough, the Navy and a small shipyard in Ketchikan.

Maybe the Susitna could be used as an offshore oil drilling support vessel or a scientific research ship able to pull up on remote Alaska beaches, borough officials say. Maybe it would work for dinner cruises or as a way for tourists to reach the Kenai Peninsula.

So far, none of the efforts to put the boat to work has gone beyond talk.

It's unknown when -- if ever -- the ferry will make what were expected to be hourly runs across Knik Arm, or less frequent, longer trips to communities up and down Cook Inlet.

Today, the Susitna remains docked where it was built in Ketchikan, hundreds of nautical miles from the community that saw it as the next big thing.

'THERE'S A FERRY?'

With work on the ship itself nearly complete, the most pressing challenge of the project is to build the specialized docks necessary for cars and trucks to drive on and off the ferry. The borough has been trying to develop such landings since at least 2001.

So far it hasn't been able to patch together enough money for construction. On the Anchorage coast, there's still no approved landing spot.

"We've had our permit at Port Mac for eight years, and I still don't know where it's going on the Anchorage side," said Mat-Su Port Director Marc Van Dongen.

A drive-on, drive-off landing at Port MacKenzie will cost $18 million, he said. On the Anchorage shore, it will be more expensive, about $22 million. That's because the inlet is shallower there and a long trestle to deeper water will be required, Van Dongen said.

While the ferry theoretically would serve as a new transportation mode for the entire Upper Cook Inlet region, the project belongs to Mat-Su.

"There's a ferry?" joked Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan when asked recently why a landing hadn't materialized on the city's side. "Have you seen it?"

The ship shouldn't have been built before the docking issue was resolved, Sullivan said. "It seemed like it happened completely backward."

Borough officials respond that they've been working for years to get an Anchorage landing and are confident it will happen.

In 2002, then-Borough Manager John Duffy and then-Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch signed an agreement to work together on a commuter ferry. The borough would pay for most of the necessary studies and engineering for docks. The municipality agreed to secure a permit within the Port of Anchorage and kick in $150,000. Other sites were analyzed too.

The first choice in 2003 was a private dock south of the Anchorage port at the North Star terminal, but that needed expensive dredging and went right by a fuel-tank farm. "From a security standpoint, that wasn't good," Von Dongen said.

So the borough turned to a site near the Ship Creek small boat launch. In early 2006, the municipality, the Port of Anchorage and the Alaska Railroad, the land owner, all gave at least qualified support.

But setnetters who launch their boats from there raised concerns. The National Marine Fisheries Service preferred the more industrial North Star site because endangered beluga whales congregate at the mouth of Ship Creek during salmon runs.

The city questioned the effect of the ferry landing on the overall appearance of the Ship Creek area. After first supporting it, the city went on record opposing the site.

The borough's quest for a landing on the Anchorage coast continued. There were more studies. Months passed.

Another site at the Port of Anchorage was considered, then ruled out, because the ferry needed too much clearance.

Mat-Su officials were steamed. If a landing wasn't identified soon, the whole ferry project might have to be canceled, Lynne Woods, acting borough mayor, wrote in November 2007 to Sullivan, then chairman of the Anchorage Assembly.

"We have been working at this for six years. We are now past the 11th hour," the borough said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich was Anchorage mayor from 2003 to 2008. He said he and his staff had numerous meetings with borough officials trying to find a site that would fit with city plans.

But "it wasn't our landing. It was their landing," Begich said. "At the end of the day, they have to design it, and they had to pay for it. And that didn't materialize."

In December 2008, as one of his last official acts as mayor, Begich canceled the ferry agreement with Mat-Su. The city's role would change from partner to "affected party," he wrote.

The borough turned its attention anew to Ship Creek. The Coast Guard analyzed the latest proposed site and in April 2009 concluded that a ferry dock there would interfere with existing operations of Cook Inlet Tug and Barge. The borough withdrew its request.

The landing quest is the most frustrating project he's been involved with in decades of construction work, Van Dongen said.

CRITICS COME OUT

After then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens secured a $20 million earmark for the ship in 2007, the project attracted attention and derision as a "ferry to nowhere" from Fox News, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call and federal budget watchdogs.

Duffy, the borough manager, took offense and fired back.

"This catch phrase with its echoes of the 'bridge to nowhere' in Ketchikan, hardly seems appropriate considering the ferry will serve the 3 most populated areas of Alaska," namely Anchorage, the Mat-Su and the Kenai, Duffy wrote to the Fox News reporter. "It may not be the Staten Island Ferry but it is not a 'ferry to nowhere.' "

Still, only a few dozen people work in the Port MacKenzie area. In the beginning, there wouldn't be much call for passenger-only traffic, Van Dongen said.

The new, nearly complete Goose Creek Correctional Center is nine miles up the road from the port. It might create some demand for the ferry, as inmates, visitors and employees travel between Anchorage and the prison.

Some remote communities, such as the village of Tyonek, on the east side of Upper Cook Inlet, are clamoring for ferry service, but their populations are tiny. The city and borough of Kenai passed resolutions in support of ferry service, but no one knows what a ticket would cost or how many people would buy them. Travel time to Kenai by ferry would be as long or longer than by car.

The existing state ferry system, which provides essential links to roadless communities, only generates about a third of the revenue needed to operate. A state subsidy covers the rest. Most transportation systems are subsidized, Gray noted.

IDEAS GALORE

The borough still sees a ship full of promise.

The ferry isn't planned to arrive in the Mat-Su until the summer of 2012, when a floating dock for walk-ons is expected to be ready.

So far, the borough has not lined up any revenue-producing work for the ship. But not a week goes by without a meeting with a business or public agency about hiring the Susitna, said James Wilson, the borough's acting assistant manager.

The borough administration has proposed a ferry budget of $1.4 million for the 12 months starting in July for insurance, utilities, fuel, maintenance, a crew and security.

Once people see the unusual boat in Cook Inlet, they'll put it to work, predicted Patty Sullivan, borough spokeswoman.

The borough points to a 2009 study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. ISER concluded that the ferry could contribute to economic growth not just in the borough but in Anchorage. It could help open the Point MacKenzie area for development, while Anchorage was running out of undeveloped land, and bring Anchorage residents to jobs in the Mat-Su, the study said.

But even one of its authors said ferry boosters shouldn't make too much of the study's conclusions.

"I hope we didn't give the impression in this report that the ferry was going to be the linchpin of this growth," said Steve Colt, a UAA associate professor of economics. "We used rosy assumptions."

Because of its beaching capability, and depending on tides, the Susitna could operate as a vehicle ferry in summer without a special dock. The borough already is working on places it could pull up in Kenai loaded with fishermen or dipnetters.

Maybe businesses developing coastal projects will use it to haul materials and workers. Shell Oil has expressed interest. So have several Alaska Native corporations, according to borough officials.

"Other groups say, 'Hey can you take us down there for sporting events,' " Gray said. "Because they don't want to drive the dangerous road between here and Kenai. They'd rather take all their kids, load them on a safe ferry and go."

Koniag Inc. considered using the ferry to haul construction supplies for a brown bear viewing center on Kodiak Island. But the Susitna wasn't ready in time for this year's construction season, said King Hufford, the corporation's director of logistics and marketing, who was in Ketchikan for a February sea trial.

Cook Inlet Region Inc. says the ferry could be used to haul workers and construction materials to its proposed Fire Island wind farm -- if CIRI is able to line up buyers for the power so the project can proceed.

Afognak Native Corp., which already leases land in the 14-square-mile Mat-Su port district, says regular ferry service could help get workers to the industrial area.

The borough looked into whether the ferry could become part of the Alaska Marine Highway System until the landing issue was worked out in Cook Inlet. But that's not a realistic option because of the special requirements and costs of the high-speed craft, said Capt. Michael A. Neussl, the state's deputy commissioner for marine operations.

At the least, Gray said, the ship could provide emergency response in Upper Cook Inlet. The Coast Guard's nearest ships are in Seward and Homer, said Petty Officer David Mosley, but that's because most boat traffic is there.

What if a jetliner went down in Cook Inlet, ask borough officials. What if an earthquake made roads impassable? What about an oil spill in Cook Inlet? The Susitna might prove invaluable as a standby rescue boat.

GETTING TO ANCHORAGE

Now the borough is pushing a redesigned Ship Creek ferry landing that incorporates Cook Inlet Tug & Barge, according to Van Dongen. Efforts to interview the tugboat operator were unsuccessful. The proposed landing spot is at the edge of Anchorage's downtown industrial area, across railroad tracks, down a gravel road, over a bridge across Ship Creek and past a storage yard stacked with shipping containers.

There's no harbor there, just a boat launch and a long catwalk to a floating dock where tugboats tie up. There's a parking area and bathrooms. Van Dongen said the borough would put in $5 million to pave the road and add sidewalks and lighting.

"We're amenable to trying to find something that works," Mayor Sullivan said. "But it seems like every location, given the nature and the design of the craft, has challenges. So far nobody has been able to overcome the challenges."

Just recently, the city and the railroad have been talking with a private waterfront development company about Ship Creek. Maybe a ferry landing will fit into that, Sullivan said.

The borough is regrouping. Van Dongen said he's scaled back and will seek bids to build a floating ferry dock next year at Port MacKenzie for a walk-on crew -- or passengers -- but not vehicles. Walk-ons will use a catwalk connected to the main dock. Federal and state money in hand should cover the estimated $7 million cost, Van Dongen said.

That would at least allow the Susitna to dock in the Mat-Su and avoid berthing fees in Ketchikan, he said.

"Initially it will just be the crew walking on and off. And the Navy, for them to do their tests," he said.

The borough does have a $4.5 million ferry terminal. The building was finished in 2007 in the hope that the boat would dock there soon.

"If we never use the ferry, we'll just convert it all to office space," Van Dongen said. Some space already is leased out, and he has an office there.

But for now, it's a terminal from nowhere.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.


By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com