WHITTIER -- What began as a minor electrical update has closed the Whittier ferry ramp for nearly two months with a tentative reopening date in December.
Alaska Marine Highway System officials shut down ferry service between Whittier and Cordova on Aug. 30 after a rewiring job went seriously awry and rendered the ramp immobile.
Cordova residents say the closure has severed a vital link between Anchorage and their city, which isn't accessible by road. It's resulted in inflated grocery prices, canceled school sporting events and lengthened travel times. Businesses in Whittier have lost money due to absent travelers, too.
"It's more than just an inconvenience," said Chris Hoover, project director with the Cordova Chamber of Commerce. "It's affecting the quality of our lives."
Ferry service continues between Cordova and Valdez, but the drive from road-system Valdez to Anchorage is about 300 miles, compared to the 60 mile trip from Anchorage to the ferry dock in Whittier.
Jeremy Woodrow, Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman, said he's "cautiously optimistic" the ramp will reopen by the first week in December. The department had previously hoped to restart the ferry in mid-October or early November, but a fix fell through.
"We're used to ships breaking down, this is a really rare occurrence where one of our ports are broken down," Woodrow said.
What went wrong
It started as a few electrical updates near the end of the tourist season.
The state hired Marshall's Electric Inc. of Anchorage to replace seven staging area light poles and light fixtures in the parking lot and remove and replace the existing wiring system on the ramp, said Capt. John Falvey, general manager with the Alaska Marine Highway System, the state agency that runs the ferry. The price tag was $150,000.
It was a multiday project that seemed fairly straight-forward.
"The items in place were older and it was time to just refurbish them," Woodrow said.
But the cost quickly escalated.
The electricians were to remove the conduit and wires from under ferry ramp and relocate them to run on the top. The wiring system controlled the lighting on the catwalk, navigation lighting for the ferries and, most importantly, the motor controller that powers the hoist that allows the dock to ride with the tide and the apron that extends from the end of the ramp and onto the ferry.
Falvey said all of the cables feed into a wire box, where they connect to the devices and lights they control.
At some point during the rewiring, the ramp was powered. The gears began grinding and broke.
"Somebody must have pushed a button somewhere and the thing started moving," Falvey said.
The state has filed a claim with Marshall's Electric's insurance company.
Marhsall's Electric did not respond to emails sent to its officials and a person who answered the phone at the office said he knew nothing about the Whittier job.
Falvey said the state is "forensically still investigating" what transpired and couldn't say how the large gears broke.
"The point is, we honestly don't know, but there's also litigation out there," he said. "They might have been going in the wrong direction."
Sixteen major components of the ferry dock were damaged or destroyed in the incident, Falvey said, including motors, linchpins, lifting beams and cables, Falvey said.
"This is big, heavy equipment," he said.
Six of the parts can be reused. The gears need to be custom cast.
This week, the ramp continues to extend straight into Prince William Sound.
"Whatever position it was in, that's where it stayed," Falvey said. "And that's where it still is and what's holding it right now is the wires that basically froze when the mechanism stopped running."
Another contractor, Western Marine Construction Inc., is working on stabilizing the unit.
How to Fix it
At the Whittier ferry marine ramp terminal two-full time employees remain, working 37.5-hour weeks. Four part-time employees and one on-call employee were laid off early for the winter, Falvey said.
In the terminal, a white board hangs next to the front desk that reads, "All Sailings Cancelled through Nov. 30th."
Falvey said Alaska ferries have been running from the Whittier terminal for about 10 years. The Chenega fast ferry, the Aurora and the Kennicott are the main boats that use the dock.
The Chenega runs at higher speed than an average ferry and primarily services Cordova, Whittier and Valdez. For the fall, on Oct. 16 the Aurora, a more "seaworthy vessel," takes over the route and also travels to Tatitlek, Woodrow said. The Kennicott is a large vessel that services Southwest Alaska all the way to Bellingham, Wash.
Currently, they're skipping Whittier.
Restoring the Whittier leg hasn't been a quick fix because most of the parts are custom made.
Pearlson Shiplift Corp., based in Miami, designed the one-of-a-kind hoist system installed in 1988. The two synchronized hoists raise and lower the ramp and work with the tide on the floating dock.
Falvey said the custom-made, floating docks are typical for Alaska "because of the severe tide range we have here." The floating ramps are used in most of the ports east of Whittier like Valdez, Haines and Cordova.
"We have big tides, you need to have these mechanisms that accommodate the ramp and can go up and down with the tide," he said.
The 16 pieces were ordered in September. They must be cast, machined and galvanized and then shipped to Alaska. They won't all come in until next spring.
"It's a pretty laborious process," Woodrow said. He expects permanent repairs to be completed by April or May.
Until then, the department is working on a temporary bandage.
Originally the department hoped to have the Aurora ferry use a private cruise ship dock in Whittier and reconnect the town to Cordova. But, "that fell through," Woodrow said. "We brought the Aurora in for a test fit and it didn't match up."
The new plan is to use old parts for the repair. Woodrow said the department expects the shipment from Florida by mid-November. The used parts will work fine, but they'll have a lower gear ratio.
"The ramp mechanism will operate and be able to carry all the loads but it's going to operate in slow motion," Falvey said.
The temporary and permanent fixes will each cost about $500,000, Falvey said. The $1 million will come from emergency federal funding that can be accessed by the Alaska Transportation Department.
The Missing Link
While the botched electrical fix cost more than anticipated, the missing ferry service has hit residents' pockets as well. The closure came at the tail end of tourist season, resulting in cancelled hotel reservations and fewer customers for restaurants and shops.
In Whittier, Kelly Bender, president of the Greater Whittier Chamber of Commerce and owner of Lazy Otter Cafe & Gifts, said the sales at her coffee shop dropped when the ferry went out of service.
The shop sits at the corner of the harbor and serves coffee, baked goods and boxed lunches, frequently to people getting on or off the state ferry.
"We're in a position to do well when there's a lot of ferry traffic," she said.
The shop closed for the season at the end of September as it always does, but that month lost sales.
For Dan Nichols, a local grocery store owner in Cordova, the closed dock means that he hasn't receive his freight shipments every Tuesday and Friday. He typically has a driver in Anchorage who buys from Costco and Sam's Club and sends a truck on the ferry.
"We could service people within three days and now it takes at least a week," Nichols said.
The owner of Nichols' Back Door Co. has been using Alaska Marine Lines, which transports freight, for weekly orders. But that service comes at a higher cost.
"And then we have to pass it on to the rest of the people in Cordova," he said of the inflated grocery prices.
Hoover cited other issues like transporting building materials to Cordova, the hassle for residents to get to doctors outside the city, and for her personally, the added hours to the journey to Anchorage to see her newly born granddaughter.
"The fast ferry has really changed life in Cordova and it's just made us feel less cut off from the state," Hoover said. "Now we feel isolated again."
Reach Tegan Hanlon at email@example.com or 257-4589.
By TEGAN HANLON