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Dutch firm is sole bidder for Mat-Su Borough's unused $78 million Susitna ferry

Alaska Dispatch
Charley Starr / Mat-Su Burough

The months-long effort by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to dispose of its $78 million Susitna Ferry, docked unused in Ketchikan, has yielded a single bid.

A Dutch marine company offered $751,000 for the 200-foot-long vessel, an ice-breaking catamaran built by the U.S. Navy as a prototype for the next generation of landing craft.  It may still go free of charge to any eligible government in the U.S.

“We’re disappointed with the results,” said John Moosey, the Mat-Su Borough manager, in a press release.  “We’ll continue to work with eligible agencies and the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) to come to a reasonable conclusion.”

The bidder, Workships Contractors BV, is based in Rotterdam, where it manages drilling, service platforms, crewing and logistics. The company would use the Susitna to ferry crews to offshore platforms.

Ferry to nowhere?

Although originally viewed as a commuter ferry across Knik Arm between Anchorage and remote Port MacKenzie, the Susitna has become something of a ferry to nowhere because there is no place for it to land in Cook Inlet. Normally, ships like the Susitna, built as a prototype for the U.S. Navy, end up on the scrap heap. But through a little finagling and a lot of dollars appropriated by former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens through Department of Defense budgets, the Mat-Su Borough ended up, at almost no cost, with a unique vessel that can carry 130 people and 20 vehicles.

Few people live near Port MacKenzie. Only about 30 mailboxes stand at the intersection of Point MacKenzie and Goose Bay roads, 20 miles from Wasilla, home to former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin.

Supporters touted the ferry as a way to help create a bustling bedroom community for Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. But instead of new transit, the Susitna has only provided bills of about $90,000 a month to dock the vessel in Ketchikan and insure it.

“What’s going to happen next, is the (borough) manager will talk with the Federal Transit Administration and learn our options. If the borough sells the ship to a private company, we would like to know what amount of our financial obligation is relieved,” Mat-Su spokeswoman Patty Sullivan told Alaska Public Media.   “If the Borough gave the ship to a government entity in the U.S., how much of the financial obligation would be relieved? We need to know those answers before the decision makers can take a look at it. “

The Borough Assembly must approve any action. Six months ago, the Borough hired international ship brokers to market the ship worldwide and solicit bids. Just one came in.

Virgin Islands, Los Angeles interested

Rather than sell the Susitna to Workships Contractors in Rotterdam, the borough could simply give the ship to another government entity in this country. Letters of interest have arrived the U.S. Virgin Islands and Los Angeles County.

According to the Mat-Su, Virgin Islands Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone wrote:

“We are in dire need of reliable inter-island travel at this time and our current situation makes this need particularly acute. The ferry providing service between St. Thomas and St. Croix was severely damaged in an accident at sea in July of 2011. Since that time, we have not had regular service between these islands despite the fact this it is desperately needed.”

And Los Angeles County CEO William T. Fujioka wrote:

“We envision using the high speed, high-tech, state-of-the-art steel welded vessel as a public access ferry service providing County residents with transportation and cargo services to and from the mainland to Catalina Island.”

Whether or not the ship will be used in Alaska seems doubtful. Last month, the Alaska Marine Highway System concluded it would be too much of a financial loss to include the ferry its fleet. While some Alaska Native corporations have expressed some interest in the vessel, none have taken any serious action toward taking on the Susitna.