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Mat-Su's dud ferry Susitna may land at Port MacKenzie drydock

Suzanna Caldwell
The troubled M/V Susitna may return to the Mat-Su from Ketchikan to be dry-docked at Point MacKenzie. Courtesy Alaska Ship & Drydock

Months after being told it couldn't be done, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is again considering whether or not to dry-dock the the much maligned M/V Susitna ferry in Port MacKenzie.

In a 5-to-2 vote, the Mat-Su Assembly instructed Borough Manager John Moosey to continue negotiations with Cruz Contractors, Inc. on costs associated with moving the ship into Cook Inlet.

Early estimates, according to Moosey, put the cost at $1.1 million to move the never-used ferry from its mooring in Ketchikan, Alaska, back up to Knik Arm. The option to dry dock the ship was one of several presented to the Assembly Tuesday night. Other options included:

•Selling the ship at much reduced cost
•Scrapping the ship
•Or continue developing options for the vessel – essentially, keep doing what they're already doing

It's the latest in the series of what to do with the $78 million ferry, which sits unused in Southeast Alaska. Billed as the world's first ice-breaking catamaran, the borough has been in possession of the ship for over a year. There were big dreams that the ship – a U.S. Naval prototype that was saved from the scrap heap -- would someday serve as a ferry across Knik Arm, a three-mile water crossing from Anchorage to undeveloped Point MacKenzie.

While the up-front costs for the ferry was essentially free – paid for with Department of Defense earmarks appropriated from former Sen. Ted Stevens – the financial burden has begun to weigh on the borough, an area roughly the size of West Virginia and home to 100,000 people. The cost of being mothballed in Ketchikan costs the borough $70,000 a month, primarily for insurance, maintenance and maintaining a small crew. That's roughly the same cost as a yearly salary to employ one teacher in the school district. So far, it's added up to almost $1.2 million.

Over the last year, numerous options have been offered for the ferry. In January, the borough offered to give away the ship for free to a government entity. Giving it to a government entity would free the borough from its financial obligations and the $6 million it would have to replay Federal Transit Authority funds. But despite renewed interest and even some offers, nothing has so far panned out.

Even the Alaska Marine Highway System, a seemingly natural fit for the vessel, said thanks but no thanks to the free ferry.

In June, Port Director Marc Van Dongen suggested selling the ship for $9 million to a ship broker at a higher commission. So far, none of the offers have come close to that.

Dry dock option

On Tuesday, Moosey told the assembly that three entities had expressed interest in purchasing the ship – although for far less than the $9 million suggested. Two of the options are domestic – including one in Alaska – while the third is international.

At one point, assemblyman Steve Colligan, frustrated over the lack of options that have come and gone over the last year, brought a motion that would have required Moosey secure a $500,000 non-refundable down payment for the vessel within 7 days or else look toward dry docking the ship.

The motion was rejected unanimously by the assembly, who instead took on a new motion to direct Moosey to continue negotiations to dry dock the vessel.

Dry docking the ferry has been considered before, though quickly written off by assembly members. Last year, questions over whether the ferry could be brought to Point MacKenzie to be beached were raised, though quickly shot down when engineers said beaching the twin-hulled vessel could cause serious damage. Dry docking it in a specially designed cradle would prevent that.

But dry docking is not without its own challenges. Beyond the $1.1 million price tag, Moosey couldn't say how much it would cost to move the vessel back into the water once an option had been decided.

The assembly is also under a time-crunch. Moosey said in order to dry dock the ship, it would have to lowered into a specially made cradle at high tide – of which there are two in the next two months. Ideally, the ship would be in Knik Arm in time for the first tide in September. That means the assembly – which has to approve all contracts – would have to decide on the issue within days.

The one option seemingly off the table? Scrapping the ferry. Colligan said the labor alone for that wouldn't cover the actual value of the ship. Plus, there are the FTA grants to think about.

Moosey said that regardless of what option is decided, there's is some hope that those grants – which have hung like black clouds over the ferry – could be negotiated.

“We'd still have to go to FTA and plead our case for forgiveness of the balance,” Moosey said. “But I'm pretty sure no one has a better story than us to seek forgiveness.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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