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Alaska Marine Highway to Mat-Su on free ferry: Thanks but no thanks

Suzanna Caldwell
The $78 million ice-breaker ferry, the M/V Susitna, is sitting in Ketchikan as Mat-Su Borough officials try to find it a new home. Charley Starr / Mat-Su Burough

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough's unused $78 million Susitna Ferry won't have a home with the Alaska Marine Highway System anytime soon. An analysis by the Alaska Marine Highway System released Friday concludes that due to a lack of docking facilities and the high cost of subsidizing the ferry, the Susitna does “not match well” with the needs of the state ferry system.

According to the analysis, the Alaska Marine Highway System could expect additional costs of $6.8 to $9 million a year if it operates the Susitna.

The Marine Highway System conducted the analysis after members of the Alaska Legislature asked whether the ferry could be used in the Alaska Class Ferry project. That project aims to replace the aging Malaspina ferry by adding two smaller ferries to the fleet, a move pushed by Gov. Sean Parnell. Parnell asked the system to consider two smaller ferries after costs to build one large ferry escalated.

Can't carry enough vehicles?

Legislators -- including Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer -- suggested the system might be able to use the Susitna instead. The vessel is being offered free of charge to government entities in the U.S. 

Alaska Marine Highway System Spokesman Jeremy Woodrow noted the idea of a “smaller” ferry is misleading. He said the Alaska Class Ferry project is expected to bring in two ships between 250 and 300 feet -- smaller than the 350-foot Malaspina but larger than the 200-foot long Susitna. The smaller ferries would be able to accommodate 50 to 60 cars, Woodrow said. The Susitna can only carry 20.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has been struggling with what to do with its ferry since taking ownership last summer. The ferry, a U.S. Navy prototype billed as the world's first ice breaking catamaran, was essentially a gift to the borough, paid for with U.S. Department of Defense funds channeled through former Sen. Ted Stevens. Initially, the hope was the ferry would serve as a transportation link between Anchorage and Port MacKenzie, offering quick transit between the Mat-Su bedroom community and Alaska's largest city. But numerous problems, including major hurdles in the permitting process, have stifled the ability of the borough's efforts to find a use for a vessel. It currently sits unused and waiting in Ketchikan's Ward Cove. Due to increasing costs -- about $90,000 a month to dock the ferry -- the borough recently offered to give the vessel away for free to any government entity.

Analysis and disappointment

The Alaska Marine Highway evaluated three possible routes, suggested by legislators:

Anchorage to Port MacKenzie: A possible commuter route, billed as a way to save driving costs.

Anchorage to Beluga: The study notes that survey considered this route as a transportation to link to the proposed Chuitna coal mine. The mine, while still in early development, is expected to have a 25-year life span. 

Homer to Seldovia: Currently the Marine Highway operates the run twice a week, using the Tustumena ferry. The study looked at using the Susitna as a possible twice-daily commuter run between the Southcentral Alaska communities.

Mat-Su Borough Planner Emerson Krueger, who has helped spearhead the borough's efforts with the ferry, called the Marine Highway System's analysis disappointing. “It's not an accident that Susitna was painted the same colors as the AHMS fleet,” he said. “We thought we were making progress with the new leadership within DOT and AHMS. Maybe now we just have more information to discuss.”

Woodrow said the study offers advice, not a final finding, and doesn't completely rule out the Susitna.

“If the legislature and governor says this is worth the extra $7 million a year, and will approve the funding for it, then well take it on,” Woodrow said. “But we don't get to make those calls.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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