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Alaska News

Alaska will use private companies for stopgap ferry service

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: February 19
  • Published February 19

The Alaska Marine Highway ferry Malaspina cruises through Tracy Arm near Juneau, May 2013. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire via AP, File)

JUNEAU — The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities will use one or more private companies to provide transportation during the state’s ongoing ferry crisis, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Wednesday.

“We’re going to have to rely on the private sector as a stopgap to some degree,” Dunleavy told reporters Wednesday.

With no operating ships, road-locked coastal towns are reporting food shortages. Hundreds of residents protested the breakdowns in a series of events across the state last week.

DOT has not released a firm plan for providing private service, and it is unclear how the state would pay for it.

Only one of the state’s fleet of 12 ships is operating, DOT Commissioner John MacKinnon said. Four have been laid up and seven are undergoing overhaul for scheduled or unscheduled work.

The ferry Matanuska, which was scheduled to be the only operating mainline vessel in the state, broke down last month, and now the state is involved in a “finger-pointing” squabble with the shipyard and the manufacturer of the broken equipment.

“That’s a very complicated issue,” MacKinnon said when asked how quickly the Matanuska can re-enter service.

Earlier this month, the state asked for information from companies that might be able to provide interim sailings until state ferries exit the shipyard. It received three responses.

The state hasn’t executed contracts with any of those companies.

“If the lack of available ships continues, we’re going to engage them,” MacKinnon said.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said that “as a stopgap, something’s better than nothing,” but Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said any private service would amount to “sightseeing boats in winter weather and some landing craft that can carry a couple of trucks.”

That’s not enough to run an economy, he said.

“This region’s in crisis. It’s in economic crisis. Households are in crisis. People are missing their medical appointments,” he said.

Also Wednesday, the governor announced the appointment of a nine-member task force intended to draft a long-term plan for the ferry system. A state-funded report issued earlier this year found that complete privatization is impractical.

[Above: Watch Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s news conference from Wednesday, where he talked about the Alaska Marine Highway System and other topics.]

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