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Will a bigger cut for ship brokers allow Mat-Su to finally sell vexed ferry?

Suzanna Caldwell
The M/V Susitna cutting a wake in happier days before being sent to Ketchikan. Charley Starr / Mat-Su Burough

Almost a year after the Matanuska-Susitna Borough gained ownership of the Susitna ferry, managers are back at “square one” seeking a new home for the $78 million vessel.

While interest is high, according to borough manager John Moosey, finding an entity with what he termed a “legitimate interest” has not been easy. “That's proven to be a challenge,” he said Thursday.

Since last summer, the borough has increased efforts to rid itself of the state-of-the-art M/V Susitna, which sits docked and unused in Ketchikan.

Originally a U.S. Navy prototype destined for the scrap heap, through finagling from lawmakers -- notably the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens -- the borough ended up with the Susitna under hopes that the world's first ice-breaking catamaran could serve as transportation link between Anchorage and Point Mackenzie.

Pricey albatross

But in the process, the borough has encountered numerous difficulties. The ship ended up being smaller than originally envisioned (it can carry up to 120 passengers and 20 vehicles) and building a landing on the Anchorage side of Knik Arm has proven difficult over the years. Now the borough is saddled with paying $90,000 a month to keep the vessel insured while it sits unused in Ketchikan. Each month, the pressure mounts to find a way to dispose of the pricey albatross.

On Tuesday, several members of the borough met to consider new ways to get word out about the vessel. The plan is to entice more ship brokers to take on the Susitna at a higher commission rate, according to Port Mackenzie Director Marc Van Dongen.

He said the borough has come up with a list of 60 domestic and international sellers to market the ship. Offering a 20 percent commission will pique interest, he hopes.

'Would make a fighter pilot drool'

Van Dongen said the borough is also looking at selling the ship for $9 million. Subtracting the 20 percent commission, that means the borough will walk away with $7.2 million -- enough to cover the $5.96 million in Federal Transit Authority funds the borough must pay back if the ship is not transferred to another government entity -- plus other accrued costs.

The vessel is still available to for transfer to another government entity free of charge. Though that, too, has been a challenge for the borough. In February, the Alaska Marine Highway System, considered one of the most logical places to send the ferry, concluded the Susitna would “not match well” with the existing ferry system.

In April, representatives from Los Angeles County, another entity that could potentially take the vessel for free, toured the boat in Ketchikan. They marveled at its engineering, and gushed about it on the Los Angeles Fire Department's website.

“(The wheelhouse is so) technologically advanced it would make a fighter pilot drool!” author Craig Weeks wrote. “... The Susitna is truly a marine engineering marvel.”

Though impressed, the group did face difficulty when a fast-receding tide left the ferry beached. So the ship ended up resting on a rock for six hours while showing off its beach capabilities.

Good place to beach

Luckily, the crew from Los Angeles was in good spirits about the situation. Weeks wrote that the crew decided to explore tide pools and hike around the island rather than bemoan their luck.

“All three team members agreed there were worst places to be stranded,” Weeks wrote. “After all, there was fuel for the ship's generator, shelter and heat in the passenger spaces, coffee and water in the galley and clams, crab, salmon and halibut to be caught if needed.”

While Weeks was impressed, Los Angeles County did not end up taking on the ferry – envisioned as prospective way to transport people and public-safety equipment between Long Beach, Calif. and Catalina Island.

Moosey said the county decided against the boat because they didn't think “the style would fit their needs.”

Requests by Alaska Dispatch for more information from the county were unanswered Thursday.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com