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Rural Alaska

Ferry cancellations mean headaches for Aleutian communities

The M/V Tustumena, a 296-foot ferry of the Alaska Marine Highway System, departs Homer on Sept. 1, 2016. The Tusty route also includes towns on Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. (Marc Lester / ADN archive 2016)

When the announcement came in early May that half a summer's worth of sailings of the Tustumena — the aging ocean-going ferry that serves a 500-mile sweep of Alaska from Kodiak to Akutan — would be canceled, Rayette McGlashan took a deep breath.

The early-childhood educator and mother of two had been planning a move from Seward back home to Sand Point.

McGlashan, her husband and two young sons had arranged to finish up their jobs, move out of their rental house, put their vehicles, trailers, skiff, mattresses and other earthly belongings on the Tustumena, for a mid-June trip from Homer that would take them to Sand Point.

And now there was no ferry, until at least July 18, according to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

"This is not the kind of news you want to have to deliver," said Meadow Bailey, a spokeswoman with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

For the communities along the Aleutian chain, the cancellation announcement brought on a familiar knot of inconveniences and logistical challenges.

Delays and cancellations have become familiar in recent years, as the Alaska Marine Highway System tries to eke more service out of the aging Tustumena while waiting for the go-ahead from the state to build a replacement.  

The Tustumena ferry approaches Kodiak on July 21, 2015. (Marc Lester / ADN archive 2015)

Meanwhile, people on the "chain run," in places like Chignik, Sand Point, King Cove and Cold Bay, rely on the ferry as by far the most affordable option to transport everything from trucks, to groceries, to construction equipment to their homes.

People don't quite understand what the Tustumena means to this part of Alaska, McGlashan said.

"There's a million little details that not being able to get on the ferry hinges on. It is a lifeline for people who live here or who are moving in or out," she said.

For Sand Point, the cancellations mean that a fire truck, required to get a certification for its airport to land PenAir's new planes, is sitting in Kodiak. It means the cars of schoolteachers leaving King Cove are stuck in the community, rather than back on the road system with their owners. It means that a culture camp to be held on King Cove had to be delayed until August — when the ferry will hopefully run — because it's too expensive to bring special guests out by plane.

This summer's cancellations also evoked a bigger, existential fear about the future of the aging ferry, and the region. At best, the DOT says a replacement ferry wouldn't be ready for five or six years. With the Tustumena pushing the end of its lifespan, that means more seasons of uncertainty.

Not knowing if the ferry is going to run means "you don't plan," said Etta Kuzakin, president of the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove.

Old ferry, new problems

The Tustumena is 53 years old. Officials agree that she's at the end of her life.

But since a replacement is still years off, the Alaska Marine Highway System still relies on the ship to serve places no other ferry could, since the Tustumena's design makes her the only ferry able to both cross fierce stretches of open North Pacific Ocean and dock in places like Chignik and False Pass.

The Tustumena approaches Cold Bay on July 19, 2015. (Marc Lester / ADN archive 2015)

In early May, the Tustumena was dry-docked at the Vigor Ketchikan shipyard undergoing yearly maintenance in advance of its planned first sailing, scheduled for mid-May, said DOT spokeswoman Bailey. Days before the boat was supposed to be released, inspectors found pocked and rusted steel in the engine room of the ship.

It wasn't the first time: The discovery of steel wastage has canceled sailings before.

In 2013, virtually the entire sailing season was canceled, though state officials sent the ferry Kennicott on limited runs to some Aleutian communities.

"Every year, as they take the vessel in, the wasted steel is found in different locations," Bailey said. "Little by little it increases as the vessel ages."

Safety concerns and federal regulations demand that the steel problems be fixed before the ferry sails again, Bailey said. This year's repairs will cost an estimated $2.9 million.

But this year, there is no backup or replacement plan.  

"The use of another (ferry) was not viable without the risk of more widespread and disruptive service outage both in terms of passenger disruption and financial consequences for individuals and for the marine highway system," the DOT said in early May.

The Alaska Marine Highway System doesn't have a way of tracking how many people had to cancel booked tickets. Along with locals, tourists from around the globe ride the ferry, booking tickets months in advance.

"It has a huge impact on people," said Bailey. "This is the transportation system they count on."

The DOT said May 9 that Coastal Transportation Inc., a Seattle-based shipping company that has been sailing to Western Alaska ports for 30 years, would take cargo on an "as able basis" from Homer to Kodiak and the same Aleutian communities served by the ferry, charging the same rate as the ferry. But the company doesn't carry passengers.

As of the end of May, 10 customers had taken advantage of the offer, Bailey said. The state is not subsidizing the deal, she said.

Uncertain future

Plans are in the works for a replacement ferry, which will cost $244 million.

Ninety percent of that will be paid for with federal money.

Some in the region fear that the state's dire financial circumstances mean the balance the state would pay for — about $22 million from a vessel replacement fund, according to the DOT — won't come, and the Tustumena won't be replaced or will hang in limbo.

"It's a little doom and gloom," said Candace Nielsen, who is on the city council in Cold Bay. "Especially with the state budget as it is, we understand what it costs to operate it."

People have been writing letters to legislators and signing petitions about the importance of the service, she said.

Rayette McGlashan and her family will still be heading to Sand Point in mid-June, ferry or no ferry. She's spending an extra $2,000 for plane tickets and putting her stuff on Coastal Transportation's ship. She's a little worried about her household goods making the trip in an open deck rather than the cargo hold of the ferry, which is protected from the weather. But it'll get there, and so will she. 

But she can't wait to get home to the place where she grew up. She misses the Aleutian sunsets, and wants her sons to grew up the way she did. Living off the road system isn't easy. But to her, it's worth it. 

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