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Port director: Idle Mat-Su ferry collecting sea life, needs TLC

Zaz Hollander
The ferry M/V Susitna conducts a beach landing on Bold Island southeast of Ketchikan during a test run for a potential buyer on July 13, 2014. Mat-Su port director Marc Van Dongen plans to ask for money to conduct maintenance on the long-idle ferry. Marc Van Dongen

WASILLA -- The Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s long-idle ferry is gathering a layer of marine life thick enough to slow the unique craft once heralded as a high-tech solution for travel between the Valley and Anchorage. 

Now, despite marching orders to keep costs down, the borough port director plans to ask the borough Assembly for money to do "much-needed" maintenance and repairs as he fields interest from several potential buyers eyeing the M/V Susitna.

The ferry with a $6 million asking price has been parked at the dock at Ward Cove since 2012 after the borough failed to put it into service bearing passengers and vehicles between Point MacKenzie and Ship Creek.

The double-hulled, $78 million vessel, built by the U.S. Navy, is currently collecting barnacles, and minor problems are starting to crop up, port director Marc Van Dongen said this week. He plans to submit a prioritized, itemized list of repair needs to the Assembly, most likely at a meeting Aug. 26. 

"I don't have an idea what the cost is going to be yet," Van Dongen said. "It'll be up to the Assembly whether to approve all or part. I could easily spend $100,000 on it just doing some maintenance."

The push for repairs and maintenance comes amid a small burst of interest from potential buyers.

The Philippine Navy, in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, is interested in the ferry and has requested a joint inspection and sea trial in late August, Van Dongen said. 

Another prospective buyer -- CWind Ltd., an offshore wind turbine service company from the United Kingdom -- took the 198-foot ferry for a test ride last week: a six-hour tour from Ward Cove and down the Tongass Narrows to a beach landing on Bold Island, southeast of Ketchikan, and back to the dock, all under unseasonably warm, sunny skies.

Van Dongen said he had yet to get an offer from the company. An email to CWind was not returned as of Friday afternoon. 

Before that July 13 run, the last time the ferry tasted open ocean was late September. That's because the Assembly, desperate to cut borough losses on the unused vessel, approved a scaled-back ferry storage contract that dropped monthly costs from $70,000 to under $29,000 but eliminated regular maintenance and sailings.  

"The vessel is starting to look a little shabby," captain J.P. Stormont said by phone Thursday. "When I had a 24-hour-a-day contract, the guys on there specifically got the moss out, cleaned the scuzz up, cleaned all the corners. Now we had the investors from England on there the other day; they couldn't help but notice things are not scrubbed down, things are not shiny." 

Clumps of seaweed and mussels have slowed the craft by 2 knots an hour, Stormont says. Cost-saving measures mean crews no longer take the ferry for monthly shake-down cruises but instead just start it and then shut it down. Valves are starting to stick, steel hulls are starting to rust and the "zincs" used to avoid saltwater corrosion need replacing.  

The ferry came to the Mat-Su by way of appropriations tucked into a larger spending package by the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. It came to the borough for free. But then the bills started coming in. 

The lack of ferry service has left the borough on the hook for at least $6 million in federal grant funds used to convert the Navy prototype to a ferry, build a terminal and do work on landings on Mat-Su and Anchorage sides. 

The borough manager and attorney have met with federal transit officials in hopes of relieving or reducing the borough's grant obligations.