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Rural Alaska

New ferry maintenance woes leave more Southeast Alaska towns without winter service

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: November 1
  • Published November 1

The Alaska Marine Highway System ferries LeConte, left, and Malaspina are tied up at the Auke Bay Terminal on Thursday, July 25, 2019. (Michael Penn/The Juneau Empire via AP)

Alaska’s threadbare ferry system is getting even thinner this winter and will leave more Alaska towns without service.

On Tuesday, officials with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities confirmed the agency will take at least one of the state’s smaller ferries out of service because it lacks the money for regularly scheduled maintenance.

“We do not have budget to repair both the LeConte and the Aurora. Based on repair estimates, we anticipate repair work will proceed on the vessel that requires the least amount of work,” DOT special assistant Meadow Bailey wrote by email.

The ferry service has already begun canceling reservations and refunding tickets. In a Friday morning message, DOT wrote, “Beginning Oct. 31, there will be no AMHS service to Angoon, Tenakee, Pelican and Gustavus. ... Haines and Skagway will receive service once per week and Hoonah will receive service twice per month.”

Gustavus resident Steve Hemenway learned Thursday that his ticket was canceled, which is a problem because he’s in Portland, Oregon, and now doesn’t have a way to get back home.

“So now, I feel like a refugee or something,” he said.

He and his wife traveled south for medical appointments and to buy supplies they knew they’d need because ferry sailings will be few and far between this winter. The Alaska Marine Highway System had slashed winter service following budget cuts approved by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Alaska Legislature, and the LeConte was among the few ferries scheduled to keep running through the fall and into early winter.

“We tried to work around the planned closures, and now we’re screwed for it,” Hemenway said.

Under the state’s previous plan, the Aurora would go into dry dock and the LeConte would leave dry dock at roughly the same time, effectively switching places. But yard crews found more work than expected was needed on the LeConte.

“AMHS budgeted $1.2 million for overhaul of the LeConte, but after hull steel surveys were conducted it was determined that additional repair work was needed. The additional repairs are estimated to cost $4 million,” Bailey wrote.

Now, all work has been stopped on the LeConte and sailings have been canceled so the state can compare the status of the two ships and advance work on whichever would be the cheapest to fix.

“Repair estimates for the Aurora should be available by Nov. 15, which will give a more firm estimate for future service,” the department said Friday morning.

The Aurora and LeConte have typically been assigned to serve smaller coastal towns, and with neither ship in service, limited access may become nonexistent for some communities.

“There’s not going to be any service until March or April for the (smaller communities) on the Panhandle,” predicted Robb Arnold, regional vice chairman of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, which represents ferry workers.

According to scheduling documents, if the LeConte were absent for the first half of the winter schedule, Pelican, Tenakee, Gustavus, Angoon and Hoonah would lose all service. Juneau, Haines and Skagway would be down to no more than two sailings per week, both from the mainline ferry Matanuska.

State officials said that’s not certain.

“AMHS is exploring possible alternatives to continue service while the LeConte and Aurora are offline. All affected customers will be notified as soon as possible if alternative service becomes available,” the department wrote Friday morning.

The state has already eliminated most winter ferry service to communities away from Southeast Alaska, including Kodiak and Seldovia (no service after Jan. 12) and Prince William Sound towns. Unalaska, which declared a transportation emergency this week, has never had winter ferry service.

The LeConte and Aurora aren’t the only ships affected by the state’s budget trouble. Last week, the state announced that the mainline ferry Malaspina will be tied up because there is not enough money to repair it. That change is not expected to affect the winter schedule, because the ship would have been in drydock for repairs, but it will affect service next summer.

If service is suspended in Southeast Alaska, it will significantly harm communities, said Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata.

“You talk to people in Skagway, this is kind of a nightmare scenario,” he said.

Without regular ferry service, he said, towns become less attractive to seniors and families, and he worries residents may move away.

“You can watch the erosion of entire communities without ferry service,” he said.

Cremata and other Skagway officials are scheduled to travel to Juneau on Friday to discuss the possibility of having the city take over ownership of the Skagway ferry terminal in order to help the state financially.

With no ferry available, they’re expecting to fly, but Cremata said that flight may be canceled by bad weather.

This article has been updated with information from a Friday morning notice by the Alaska Marine Highway System.

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