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When replacing Alaska ferry Tustumena, how big is big enough?

Pat Forgey
Jae and Preston Cluff from Eagle River fish for flounder near the tip of the Homer Spit as the Alaska State Ferry Tustumena leaves Homer on it's way to Seldovia on Tuesday August 4th, 2007. The state is currently examining the possibility of replacing the aging vessel in coming years. Photo by Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News

JUNEAU -- The state ferry Tustumena is already a compromise, needing to be big and powerful enough to deal with the Gulf of Alaska's notoriously rough weather, but small and handy enough to maneuver in the sometimes-cramped small-town harbors where it provides service.

Now plans to replace the aging vessel are encountering criticism locally, as the Alaska Marine Highway System discovers how challenging it can be to strike a balance between seaworthiness and versatility.

The first problem is Kodiak, where the ferry dock is tightly wedged between a fish plant and a fuel dock, and can overhang both.

"An extra 25 or 50 feet would cause major, major, major conflicts with my operation," said Paul Lumsden, manager of the Trident Seafoods plant in Kodiak.

The current Tustumena, at 296 feet, already presents difficulties, he said, as fishing boats, which can be as large as factory trawlers of a couple of hundred feet, have to maneuver in tight confines while contending with tricky harbor currents. Already, fishing vessels have touched ferries, he said.

The Tustumena's replacement likely will have a host of changes from the vessel now serving Southwest Alaska, from Homer out to the Aleutian chain, but much of the focus has been on how big it should be. The proposed new vessel is slated to be 34 feet longer and 11 feet wider than the existing ferry, the Marine Transportation Advisory Board was told this week in Kodiak.

Open ocean pounding

The ferry system has faced the length question before, and it got the answer wrong then.

The Tustumena was built in the early days of the ferry system and the state, joining the fleet in 1964, just a year after the Malaspina, Matanuska and Taku.

Back then, it was the only ocean-going ferry in the state’s fleet. The others operated almost entirely in the sheltered waters of the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska.

The Tustumena was designed to be 305 feet, but it was shortened to 240 feet in order to reduce construction costs -- critical in the days before Alaska’s oil money started to flow.

But at 240 feet, the vessel proved unable to handle the seas it had to contend with, said Capt. John Falvey, the ferry system's general manager. It was sent back into the shipyard, where it was extended to its present length.

But then, several years later, it was back in the shipyard again, this time getting the lengthened ship strengthened as well, to better withstand the pounding provided by the open ocean.

Later, when the ferry system built its second ocean-capable vessel, the Kennicott, it went even bigger, to 382 feet. That extra seaworthiness is useful for regular runs across the Gulf of Alaska, but the larger size meant the Kennicott couldn't serve five ports that the smaller Tustumena calls at regularly.

That proved to be a serious problem for those communities when last year's shipyard overhaul of the Tustumena went badly wrong, and the Tusty’s return to service was delayed several months. The Kennicott could fill in for some but not all of its duties.

Docking issues

Ferry officials say the refurbished Tustumena can easily last 10 more years, giving the state adequate time to plan, finance and build its replacement. The expanded vessel has been carefully designed to fit in all of the ports it needs to serve, and will also be able to carry more passengers and vehicles, transportation officials said.

But in Kodiak this week, the advisory board heard strong support for the bigger boat and concerns about the docking situation as well.

Trident Seafoods employees rely on the ferry, and the company itself uses it to ship out fresh fish, Lumsden said.

"We are totally appreciative and excited about the expansion," he said.

But Lumsden also said there is not enough room in the harbor.

"An extended vessel would impact our operation, and in fact be a safety concern," he said.

On the opposite side of the pier, Petro Marine's fuel dock has similar concerns, depending on how far the new ferry projects out.

"It's pretty tight as it is, and getting bigger will make it even tighter," said Jaime Flores, the Petro Marine plant manager in Kodiak.

Kodiak Harbormaster Lon White said that the docking limitations should have been taken into consideration earlier.

"I don't believe the current ferry dock site will support the 325-foot vessel," White said.

The ferry system acknowledged a "slight overhang" past the pier, but officials said their studies show the plan will work. At the same time, they've looked for new dock locations as well.

"We went through a long, lengthy process looking at different locations," said Reuben Yost, deputy commissioner for marine operations for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.  Kodiak Harbor has few options, he said, and local officials agreed.

While the replacement work has been going on for some time, it's still relatively early in a lengthy process, said transportation planner Christa Hagen.

"We are in very preliminary design,” she said.  “There are no technical specifications out there."

But board member Tim Joyce warned that reducing the size of the ferry would limit capacity that's already inadequate and wouldn't allow for future growth.

Capacity for passengers, vehicles grows

Other changes in the new ferry, which will be bigger and faster, include 40 percent increases in the number of passengers and the number of vehicles it can carry and a doubling of the number of vans it can carry.

But Hagen said the vessel will retain the "look and feel" of the current fleet.

Passengers will also see a big change in dining options, as sit-down dining switches to cafeteria-style, they said. That will be more convenient for passengers, she said, because it will be open longer hours.

One intriguing possibility under consideration is running the ferry on Liquefied Natural Gas, giving the possibility of cheaper and cleaner operation.

That's commonly done elsewhere in the world, and in a few places in the United States. But U.S. Coast Guard regulations require LNG tanks be above deck, which can present stability problems if the tanks are large, with Alaska ferries needing to carry as much as a week's worth of fuel.

That's not a problem that the Staten Island Ferry in New York City experiences, Yost said. "Stability is not an issue in New York Harbor, and they can fill up every day," he said.

More community meetings will be held before a final design is announced, Hagen said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com