Routing changes involving the state’s new Alaska-class ferries will save nearly $40 million, officials said this week, in large part by not adding crew quarters and committing the vessels to shorter trips.

Although a union representing ferry workers says crews have long sought the omitted crew quarters, a Juneau lawmaker says his constituents are focused on improving the frequency of same-day service in Southeast Alaska.

According to an Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) statement Wednesday, the Alaska-class Tazlina will take over Lynn Canal sailings in Southeast Alaska, replacing its sister vessel the Fairweather. Next year, the Tazlina’s sister ship the Hubbard – set to be completed in April, according to AMHS – will take over Prince William Sound routes currently covered by the Aurora.

Construction of the Tazlina and the Hubbard was contracted to Vigor Shipbuilding in Ketchikan. After three years of work, the Tazlina was christened by then-first lady Donna Walker in August.

First Lady Donna Walker prepares to christen the Alaska state ferry M/V Tazlina in Ketchikan on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. (Credit: Courtesy Gov. Bill Walker's office)

The ferry system’s current fleet of 10 vessels includes five “mainline” ferries, which are fitted with crew and passenger cabins for longer sailings to destinations like the Aleutian Islands and the system’s southern terminus in Bellingham, Washington. In Alaska, five smaller “day boats” service shorter legs in Southcentral and Southeast.

Placing the Tazlina and the Hubbard on short-haul sailings will prevent the state from needing to fit them with crew quarters at an estimated cost of $27 million, AMHS staff said Wednesday. In addition, their replacements of the Fairweather and Aurora will allow those ferries to be retired before they require additional maintenance this year – $1 million for an annual overhaul of the Fairweather, as well as $10 million in engine repairs for the Aurora.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, newly elected to Juneau’s seat in the state Senate, says the importance of the Marine Highway System across Southeast Alaska is reflected in its formal name.

“It’s the road,” Kiehl said. “It connects one community to another. Whether that’s your vacation, or the building mats for your house, or a tourist in a Winnebago, or a van full of fish or a high-school sports team, that’s their road; it’s a vital structure for the economy.”

Kiehl says that along the Lynn Canal route where the Tazlina will serve, the ferry system has planned for years to add day boats. The main concern he’s heard from constituents this week is that the swap means Lynn Canal will only have one day boat serving it, rather than two as once intended.

“Going every single day at a predictable time is better for users,” Kiehl said. “You can schedule your trip and schedule your cargo without figuring out: ‘Is there a ferry at the top of this week, or is it 2 a.m. or 10 in the afternoon?’”

The purpose of the Alaska-class ferries has been an evolving concern in the months leading up to Mike Dunleavy’s Nov. 6 election to replace Bill Walker as governor. State transportation officials told Ketchikan public radio station KRBD in September that they planned to add crew cabins to the ships to enhance their flexibility and reliability, as former AMHS staff said the addition had been thought to be inevitable among crews.

Trina Arnold, the Alaska regional director for the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific which represents ferry crews, says members have long pushed for cabins on the new ferries, due to the distances between crews’ ports of call and their homes – but state administrators haven’t asked for their input.

“The crew have been saying for years that there should have been rooms on the vessel, just because of the area where we live,” Arnold said.

As an example Arnold, who started in the ferry system in 2006 as a steward and rose to relief able seaman before moving to the union, mentioned the crew of the Aurora now serving Prince William Sound.

“Those people live in Anchorage, Wasilla, Kenai, so it's hard for those people to commute,” she said.

In December, Anchorage Daily News reporter James Brooks wrote that the Alaska-class ferries would require an additional $30 million in work to enter service as intended. That work included the addition of the crew quarters, as well as side car doors allowing them to dock at all state ferry terminals rather than those they had been designed to serve as part of a proposed road link to Juneau.

Shortly after the story ran, Brooks told Alaska Public Media the ferries might have been built for far less cost to Alaska had the state sought a federal match for 90 percent of their construction costs — a decision that may have prevented them from being built in Alaska.

Kiehl concurred with Brooks’ assessment of the project’s cost, saying the decision for full state funding — which allowed the state to designate a preference for an Alaska shipyard — dated back to Sean Parnell’s administration as governor.

“It did take 100 percent state money instead of that federal split to provide it,” Kiehl said. “Alaskans building an Alaskan boat is very appealing to people.”

The ferry system said Wednesday the Tazlina and Hubbard will still undergo $3 million in work to add the side car doors. Passengers affected by the routing changes will be contacted by AMHS to have their tickets refunded or rescheduled.

For Kiehl, the episode involving the Tazlina and Hubbard illustrates the urgent need for long-term perspective in outlining and budgeting major state projects as other aging ferries also require replacements.

“I think the bigger issue here is that we have to have a fiscal plan for Alaska, or people could keep making multi-multi-million-dollar infrastructure decisions based on the price of oil every month,” he said. “These are $60 million boats; you have to know how you’re going to use them, preferably before you build them.”

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