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Mat-Su Borough offers star-crossed M/V Susitna ferry for free

Suzanna Caldwell
The M/V Susitna is capable of carrying 20 vehicles and 120 passengers, but the borough wants to give the $80 million vessel away. Courtesy Alaska Ship & Drydock

Are you a government entity needing a new $80 million ferry? How about a 200-foot-long vessel, billed as the world's first icebreaking catamaran, capable of carrying 20 cars and 120 passengers at a time?

Like, really, really in need of a ferry?

If so, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is here to help.

In a Jan. 22 letter to the national Passenger Vessel Association, Port MacKenzie Director Marc Van Dongen is offering federal, state and local governments -- including U.S. territories -- the much-maligned Susitna ferry "FREE of CHARGE."

The bold, all-caps banner is the latest exasperated attempted by the borough to find a new home for the M/V Susitna, which costs the borough about $90,000 a month to sit unused and waiting in a Ketchikan dock. 

Borough planner Emerson Kruger, who has spearheaded the borough's latest efforts to ditch the Susitna, said the solicitation is the next step toward working with the Federal Transit Authority to unload the vessel. 

"This is to prove that we've exhausted all possible avenues," he said. 

That's not to say that someone couldn't still buy the vessel. The letter points out that non-government entities interested in purchasing the ferry have until March 29 to submit proposals. So far, none have arrived. 

Not only could government entities get a free ferry, they could theoretically get cash -- up to $6 million in Federal Transit Authority funds unspent by the borough, which could be used to build or modify landings for the vessel. The letter states the entities could apply for all or part of the grant funds.

Krueger said some government entities have reached out to the borough about the vessel, including ferry operators in Washington and Connecticut. There's even been some discussion about the commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific taking over the vessel. Krueger said all of those came before the letter was distributed.

Krueger noted that any entity wanting to take the ferry will have to take it "as is," and that the borough will not incur any shipping costs.

Big dreams dashed 

The letter is just another step forward in the long and tormented story of the Susitna. The ferry, developed as a half-size model of a proposed Naval amphibious landing craft, has been lauded for its sleek look and powerful capabilities, but criticized as less-than-desirable for transporting Alaskans across Knik Arm. 

The late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens helped secure numerous earmarks though Defense Department budgets to pay for the ship, which was essentially a gift to the Mat-Su. The hope was instead of the vessel ending up in the scrap pile, as many prototype ships do, it would shuttle commuters three miles across Knik Arm from Anchorage to Point MacKenzie. The ferry could even serve as a rescue vessel during winter. 

But the free ferry quickly became costly last summer, when the borough gained ownership of the vessel.

Von Dongen said he was confident the borough could secure permits to build landings for the ferry, but that the high costs associated with maintaining the ferry make that process impractical.

Despite a recently completed positive risk assessment for an Anchorage landing by the U.S. Coast Guard, the environmental permitting and contracting would take years to come together.

Van Dongen said even if the go-ahead permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were in hand today, it would still take three to four years to finish construction on the landings. With public pressure mounting, the borough doesn't see that as a feasible option.

"We just can't afford to have (the ferry) sitting down there and waiting," Van Dongen said.

Exasperated Assembly

Earlier this month, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly narrowly voted 4-3 to extend funding of the vessel. Assembly member Steve Colligan, who has long been critical of the star-crossed Susitna, was one of three who voted against spending another $220,000 to keep the ferry docked for three months.

Colligan said he's not against a ferry in the Mat-Su, but that it's time to stop calling the Susitna a ferry and start calling it what he says it is -- a research vessel.

"What was envisioned then is not what was delivered to us," he said. "It was a research project we could have benefited from. But when the Navy delivered a vessel half the size and half the capacity, there's not much we can do with that."

Colligan said he would support a more traditional ferry project, but it has to be economically viable. He noted that the monthly cost to keep the ferry docked uselessly in Ketchikan is about the same as a teacher's annual salary.

Colligan said he would love to see the Susitna operate in Alaska in some capacity, though no group -- including the Alaska Marine Highway System -- has shown any interest in taking it.

"We would love to see it put to use in Alaska for drilling and resource opportunities or emergency response," he said. "But none of those opportunities have come to fruition." 

Even fellow Assemblyman Darcie Salmon doesn't see any hope for the vessel these days. Despite his long support of the project -- he was borough mayor when it was first announced -- he supports the Assembly for doing everything possible to unsaddle the borough.

"I would look for the ray of sunshine in this, but I can't find it," Salmon said, "and if I can't, I certainly can't convince others."

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com