Mat-Su ferry steers away from dry dock

Zaz Hollander
The Susitna has been stored for $70,000 a month at a Ward Cove dock since April 2012.

The Mat-Su Borough has reversed course on dry-docking the idled yet costly M/V Susitna ferry at Port MacKenzie.

Instead, the Mat-Su Assembly, in a unanimous vote Thursday night, directed Borough Manager John Moosey to go back to what he's been doing all along -- chase every chance to sell the $78 million ferry or bring it up to Cook Inlet to eventually run between the port and Anchorage like it was supposed to.

The manager will crunch the numbers on putting the ferry in "wet lay-up" in the water at Ward Cove versus bringing it up to Port MacKenzie in ice-free months and doing a wet lay-up in Seward during winter.

He'll also continue pursuing potential buyers or giving it to a government entity, potentially getting the borough off the hook for at least $6 million in grant obligations owed the Federal Transit Administration.

The borough got the U.S. Navy prototype for free but, without money for ferry landings on either side, started storing the Susitna for $70,000 a month at a Ward Cove dock in April 2012.

The Ward Cove option is favored by those who want to sell the ferry.

The ferry's current captain, Wasilla resident J.P. Stormont, is proposing a lay-up - long-term storage but not mothballing - in the protected waters of Ward Cove. Stormont said he can cut the borough's current annual costs from $840,000 to an estimated $212,000 a year by reducing docking, maintenance, security and insurance costs.

But really, Stormont told the Assembly, the best thing to do is find a buyer.

The ship is a high-speed craft that's expensive to maintain and already getting obsolete, Stormont said. Fire extinguishers and life rafts need replacing, as does a radar. It's never passed U.S. Coast Guard inspection.

"You'd be better off building a ferry and getting rid of the high-speed craft," he said.

Those who want to put the ferry to work in Cook Inlet want it closer.

Cruz Construction, headquartered between Palmer and Wasilla, is proposing to tie up the ferry at Port MacKenzie during the ice-free months, then do a wet lay-up at a privately owned dock near Seward during the winter. Cruz doesn't have numbers on cost yet. He does have $90,000 from the borough to do analysis and prep the ferry.

Cruz, who sits on the port commission, wants the ferry physically at the port to generate the political will necessary to get it back in the water.

"For this to work, you can't talk about it. People have to be able to see, feel and touch that boat," he said. "My recommendation is to bring that vessel up. Let Anchorage see this. Let the residents of the Valley see it."

The about-face from the Assembly comes a little more than two weeks they voted 5-2 to aggressively pursue dry docking.

Original plans submitted by Cruz called for the catamaran-style craft to be beached in a trench next to the port. Cruz gave the borough an October deadline to float the ferry in on a high tide.

The plan would cost $1.8 million, Moosey said in an update Thursday night. The borough would "put it to bed" for three to five years and hunt up a partner for Cook Inlet ferry service, he said.

Critics raised concerns that dry-docking it could damage the ferry, and it could cost millions to float it again years down the road.

But a surprise glitch torpedoed work on dry dock plans. Cruz can't get a permit for the ferry work from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until the borough resolves wetlands mitigation paperwork on unrelated projects, according to the borough's port director, Marc Van Dongen. That adds about six months, blowing the October deadline.

Several Assembly members on Thursday backed away from the earlier dry-dock vote.

"I voted on dry dock just because I think we needed some movement," said Assembly member Vern Halter, an Iditarod musher who represents the Willow area. "I appreciate what Mr. Cruz is saying about usage but it just seems the costs are so outrageous we're never going to get there."

It could cost millions to refloat the ferry and put it in service, Stormont has said. Building ferry landings would cost at least $70 million including an upgrade to the Ship Creek Point road, port director Marc Van Dongen said. He estimated the ferry would cost at least $3.5 million a year in subsidies.

"We can't afford that boat up here," said Assembly member Noel Woods, who represents the Palmer area.

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.