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Mat-Su may give away controversial $80 million Susitna ferry

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News

An $80 million ice-breaking ferry envisioned as a speedy link across Knik Arm between Alaska’s largest city and remote Port MacKenzie seems to be increasingly viewed as a ferry to nowhere that will never carry Alaska passengers but could suck hundreds of thousands of dollars a year out of Matanuska-Susitna Borough coffers.

So for the first time on Tuesday, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly asked Borough Manager John Moosey to put the Susitna ferry on a federal surplus registry and list it for sale by a broker. Conceivably, the borough may give the 195-foot vessel away – if it can find somebody who wants it.

In a 23-minute meeting, borough assembly members discussed whether to allocate more than a half-million dollars to pay for a year's worth of insurance and maintenance for the $80 million ship that’s still docked in Ketchikan.

Instead, the assembly agreed to pay $123,700 quarterly to insure the vessel and asked Moosey to put the vessel on a federal registry while also listing it for sale by a broker.

New urgency

If not a death blow to the Susitna -- billed as the world's first ice-breaking catamaran -- it's an indication the assembly is much more interested in dumping the ship than it was just three weeks ago. That’s when it voted 6-1 to issue a request for proposals to determine what it would cost to move the ferry north to what was thought to be its future home. Before that meeting, the assembly seemed split on what to do with vessel.

The request for proposals on moving the Susitna north was put out Aug. 23 and is due back by early September. As of Saturday, Moosey said no proposals had been submitted.

The assembly's sense of urgency over what to do with the ferry increased this summer as the borough started paying $66,000 a month for maintenance, docking, security and utilities.

Michelle Church was the only person to testify at Tuesday's meeting. Church, an assemblywoman  from 2006-09, is seeking another stint on the body and is running against incumbent District 3 assemblyman Ron Arvin. She criticized the assembly for not addressing any hard questions on the ferry.

Current Assemblyman Steve Colligan shot back.

“You left us here four years ago,” he said. “I think you need to take a little personal responsibility for this as well.”

No where to put it

 The most-pressing issue is that the ferry has no place to land in Cook Inlet. Normally, ships like the Susitna, built as a prototype for the U.S. Navy, end up on the scrap heap. But through a little finagling and a lot of dollars appropriated by former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens through Department of Defense budgets, the Mat-Su Borough ended up with a unique vessel that can carry 130 people and 20 vehicles at almost no cost.

Few people live near in the area surrounding Port MacKenzie. Only about 30 mailboxes stand at the intersection of Point MacKenzie and Goose Bay roads, 20 miles from Wasilla -- home to former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin, famous, for among other things, rallying against government pork spending including “bridges to nowhere.”

Supporters say the ferry could help create a bustling bedroom community for Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Ferries are often the first step on the way to building a commuter bridge, though in recent years a separate authority has emerged to push the proposed Knik Arm Bridge from Anchorage to near Port MacKenzie.

Mat-Su Port Director Marc Van Dongen said all the permits are in place to build a landing on the Point Mackenzie side, but the funds to build it are frozen until a landing site can be found in Anchorage. Those permits remain under consideration by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Van Dongen considers the odds of securing them about 50-50.

Previous assembly meetings considered bringing the ferry to the Mat-Su and parking it on the beach. Engineers said that's not possible without a special cradle because the stress of resting the twin-hulled ship on the beach could damage the structure.

Sub launcher?

Moosey's staff will now look at putting the ferry on the federal surplus list or selling it through a broker. Once on the surplus list, any federal agency or program could collect the ship at no cost.

Several months ago, Mooney noted that the Naval Underwater Warfare Center had expressed interest in the vessel for launching submarines into the Persian Gulf. At the time, he said, they couldn't afford to purchase the ferry. But obtaining it through the federal registry could solve that problem.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has also expressed some interest in the ferry. However, that agency is still figuring out whether it could incorporate such a small vessel into its fleet. With room to carry only 130 people and 20 cars, Susitna would be one of the smallest ferries in the system. Today, the 180-foot MV Lituya, which serves the Ketchikan-to-Metlakatla route in southeast Alaska, is the smallest of the 11-vessel fleet.  It holds 18 vehicles and 150 passengers.

Assemblyman Arvin remained said the assembly was doing the right thing by proceeding carefully.

“This allows us to keep all options open,” he said. “We're doing best we can with what we have.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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