Alaska News

Dunleavy administration unveils 5-year plan to replace aging Tustumena ferry with new vessel

A plan to replace an aging state ferry that serves Southwest Alaska with a brand-new vessel is in the works, state officials said Saturday.

The Dunleavy administration is working with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to pursue construction of a larger ferry that would cost between $200 million and $250 million in federal transportation dollars, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and transportation commissioner Ryan Anderson told reporters.

Officials have been planning for years to replace the ferry — a designer was selected in 2013 — but that process has been held up at various points along the way. When Dunleavy entered office, the schedule called for the hiring of a construction manager in early 2019 and construction to begin in 2020.

The Tustumena has long been plagued by maintenance issues. After significant hull cracks were discovered in 2016, the state and Coast Guard restricted it from sailing in rough seas.

The new ocean-class ferry would take an estimated five years to complete. Its vehicle and passenger capacity would increase by about 40% compared to the Tustumena, from 34 to 52 vehicles and from 160 to 250 passengers, Dunleavy’s office said in a statement Saturday.

Since taking office, the Dunleavy administration has pursued major cuts to state funding for the ferry system. When Dunleavy entered office in 2018, the ferry system received $86 million for operations, atop money it raised from ticket sales. In Dunleavy’s first budget, that was cut to $45.8 million and has rebounded slightly since then.

As a result of that cut, ferries sail less often, and there are fewer ferries operating. The ferry Taku was sold for scrap in India, the fast ferries Fairweather and Chenega were sold to Spain, and the large ferry Malaspina has been put into long-term storage while the state considers its future.

The Dunleavy administration had proposed even further cuts to ferry service, but federal aid earmarked by Alaska’s Congressional delegation precluded that action.

The Tustumena, which was put to service in Alaska in 1964, serves Kodiak, the Aleutian Islands and the Kenai Peninsula, connecting more remote communities to the road system in Homer.

As the 57-year-old ship has aged, repairs have cost as much as $2 million each year, Dunleavy said.

“Built to serve Southwest Alaska, it was dubbed the ‘Trusty Tusty,’ ” Dunleavy said, reading from a prepared statement. “More recently, though, it has become known as the ‘Rusty Tusty,’ as the ship has sailed far beyond its initial design life as a workhorse of the ferry fleet system.”

Dunleavy is seeking re-election in 2022.

On top of its larger capacity, the new ferry would also boast improved fuel efficiency and other modern updates that would make it “move through the water easily,” Anderson said. The vessel will also be designed so that current ports can accommodate it, he said.

Kodiak would remain the home port for the new ferry, which is estimated to be placed into service in early 2027.

Anderson said a team of contractors would be working through final phases of design, and that a guaranteed price would be set before the building project would begin.

In the meantime, the state is also allocating $8 million for repairs and improvements to the Tustumena to keep it running until the new vessel is completed, Anderson said, and the Tustumena will be laid up this winter in Seward for repairs.

The Kennicott ferry will provide service on the Kodiak-Homer route while the Tustumena is undergoing repairs, DOT spokesman Sam Dapcevich said. Because the Kennicott also runs other routes, however, it won’t be able to provide the same frequency of service as the Tustumena.

A state factsheet says that the Tustumena is expected to return to service June 30, though a sailings calendar on the Marine Highway System website lists it in service starting in mid-May.

State law requires state ferries be named after Alaska glaciers, and Dunleavy said the state plans to host an essay contest for students to choose the new ship’s name.

The Alaska Marine Highway System serves 35 coastal communities in Alaska that rely on the ferry system as an often more affordable method of transporting goods, vehicles and passengers year-round, and as a link to the state’s road system. In recent years, the ferry system has been plagued by setbacks as its fleet has aged and its budget has been cut.

The new ferry construction project and Tustumena repairs are part of a larger plan that state officials hope will “re-energize” the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Other aspects of the plan include: a new “essential ferry service for rural communities” with funding from the federal infrastructure bill; the addition of crew quarters to the Alaska-class ferry Hubbard to enable it to serve Prince William Sound and other areas, a project estimated at $16 million; and backup service for the Southeast route sailed by the ferry LeConte while the latter is undergoing annual maintenance.

Crew quarters were needed for the Alaska-built Hubbard and Tazlina because both were built to serve specifically in northern Lynn Canal, connecting two ferry terminals that were never constructed. Because of service cuts and the failure to fully implement the plan envisioned when they were ordered, both ships are being used in ways they weren’t originally designed for.

Other funding will be allocated to target recruiting of maritime workers amid a national worker shortage, Anderson said.

This winter, the Tazlina has been tied up to a dock in Juneau because of a lack of crew to operate it, said Marine Highway System spokesman Sam Dapcevich.

“Just like all over the country, it’s getting hard to find workers,” Anderson said. “If you know anybody that’s looking for a job, that’s interested in a career with the marine highway system, we’re hiring.”

The funding allocations will be included in the governor’s proposed budget, which will be submitted by Dec. 15, Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said.

ADN reporter James Brooks contributed to this report.

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