It’s not always easy to travel in Alaska. As U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg discovered in mid-August while touring the state, planes get delayed and ferries — when they’re available — are often a more convenient way to get around.
That’s why there was a stir in the crowd when representatives visiting Unalaska earlier this month weighed the fate of the Tustumena, a vessel that’s been in service with the state ferry system since the mid-60s. The ship was commissioned in 1964, meaning that the Tustumena turns 60 years old next year.
The Alaska Marine Highway stretches 3,500 miles, starting in Bellingham, Washington. Throughout the summertime, the Tustumena serves communities from Dutch Harbor to Homer. With Dutch Harbor as the westernmost stop, the ferry fills a crucial role in transporting people, vehicles and cargo to and from the island that might be a challenge to move otherwise.
Unalaska Mayor Vince Tutiakoff said the ferry system is crucial to the city’s wellbeing.
“Teachers, people that come out to visit their families, come out on the ferry because it is an opportunity to stop at seven or eight other communities,” said Tutiakoff. “As you come further west, you see a larger community such as Unalaska, and it’s very vital to the continued growth of our area here in the Aleutians.”
Jesse Kiehl is a Democratic state senator representing Juneau, Haines and Skagway. While addressing Unalaskans, Kiehl said that talks with Buttigieg touched on potential federal investments in Alaska’s ferries.
“We got to spend some serious time with him on one of our Alaska Marine Highway System ferries talking about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have with the infrastructure law, and some of the other federal investments to recapitalize our ferry system,” said Kiehl.
Two new federal Marine Highway routes were also designated during Buttigieg’s visit. According to the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD), the incoming M-11 route will run from the Aleutian Islands to the Canadian border. Legislators suggested that could open federal funding avenues to communities along the route.
“One thing is crystal clear to all of us: the first vessel to be replaced will be the Tustumena,” Kiehl said, drawing applause from the audience at the Grand Aleutian Hotel.
Ryan Anderson, commissioner with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said that his team’s goal is to have the Tustumena’s replacement in service by 2027. That’s despite an initial failure to get bids from American shipyards slowing manufacturing efforts. Anderson and his team are also considering launching a naming campaign this winter.
Pending changes, however, go beyond the Tustumena. Anderson explained that investments are also slated for dock infrastructure.
“Across the board on the Marine Highway System, we’re not just investing in ships, we’re investing in dock infrastructure,” he told Unalaskans. “We really want to see all ships capable of all docks. We have these challenges with some of these older vessels, and we want to be able to move ships around so people can have the most service possible.”
Kiehl said that maintenance of the ferry system overall will help officials avoid the “hole of deferred maintenance” they’re digging themselves out of today. In the long run, he anticipates those efforts will help attract and retain mariners who run the ferries.
Anderson said that the Kennicott wasn’t in service this summer because of difficulties crewing the vessel.
“It’s really just a nationwide, global shortage in the maritime industry — you all probably know a lot more about this than I do — but it’s tougher [to attract] workers, and we didn’t have the crews to run all the ships, and we had to make choices,” Anderson said.
But with new recruitment initiatives materializing, Anderson looks forward to having the full ferry fleet back online next year.