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After delays, Alaska's not-so-trusty Tusty due to resume ferry service soon

The Alaska Marine Highway System is booking passengers on the ferry Tustumena's scheduled runs between Kenai Peninsula and several Kodiak Island communities for service beginning Oct. 20. But repeated delays have made residents highly skeptical. Isaac Wedin / cc via flickr

JUNEAU -- The Kodiak Island communities that rely on the state ferry Tustumena can expect to see the trusty Tusty within weeks, as a long period of limited service nears an end.

While the Tustumena's running lights are not yet actually visible, the 296-foot ferry is back in the water for the first time in nearly a year at the Seward Railroad Dock.

It is now undergoing trials and testing in preparation for its scheduled to return to service on Oct. 20. That's the latest in series of deadlines, most of which have been busted. This time the Alaska Marine Highway System is booking passengers on the Tustumena's scheduled runs between Kenai Peninsula and several Kodiak Island communities.

"You know, a lot of people are so skeptical, they just say 'I'll believe it when I see it,'" said Kathryn Adkins, city clerk in Kodiak Island's Port Lions.

The city has had ferry service since its founding shortly after state ferries began operating in the 1960s, she said.

"We're very reliant on it, between here and Kodiak especially, but also between here and the mainland," she said.

This summer lodges couldn't ship in supplies for tourist season, and building projects are on hold waiting for ferry traffic to resume.

Some summer residents couldn't get their cars to Port Lions and didn't come this year, but Adkins said Port Lions expects visitors as soon as the Tustumena begins running.

"We get a lot of Alaska residents coming in on the ferry during deer-hunting season, and we may still get some of those this fall," she said.

The delays at Seward Ship's Drydock resulted when additional deterioration needing attention was discovered during the overhaul. Then a series of repairs failed to pass inspection and had to be redone.

In some cases, bad welds had to be cut out and replaced. In another case, the company used steel that was too thin.

"The plating that was too thin was removed and the proper size steel plats were installed and inspected by the USCG (U.S. Coast Guard)," said Jeremy Woodrow, spokesman for the ferry system.

"All repair work to date has passed USCG inspection," he said.

Although the Tustumena is in Resurrection Bay, it has had to undergo incline and stability testing, ferry officials say. That's the potential final hurdle.

Getting the final review and certification by Coast Guard authorities based in Washington, D.C., may be difficult due to short staffing related to the federal shutdown, Woodrow said.

However, ferry officials are confident they can get a temporary certification based on the test results and will make the Oct. 20 sailing date, he said. On that day, the Tusty is due to travel from Seldovia to Homer and then onto Port Lions, Ouzinkie and Kodiak on the island of the same name.

Passenger vessels such as the Tustumena are top-heavy compared to other ships, and need careful ballast calculations to deal with the higher center of gravity, said Capt. John Falvey, general manager of the ferry system. Those calculations change as ships are overhauled and age, he said, and must be certified by the Coast Guard

"Ships gain weight as they age, they just do," he said.

Among the changes made to the Tustumena include a new state-of-the-art emergency slide system, the last of the ferries to get it, he said.

Adkins said some Port Lions residents had begun to doubt whether they were ever going to see the 49-year-old ferry again. But Falvey said during the summer that the Tustumena, while slated for replacement, is expected to provide several years of additional service.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com