Ferry system wants to serve state well

This summer has been a challenge for many Alaskans who rely on a particular link in the Alaska Marine Highway System. The M/V Tustumena has been out of service all summer, causing serious disruptions for residents and small businesses of Seldovia, Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Chain. 

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, DOT&PF, is committed to returning the Tustumena to service as quickly and safely as possible.

As one of two open-ocean certified vessels operated by DOT&PF, the Tustumena also is the only vessel that can call on every Southcentral, Kodiak Island and Aleutian port. The other vessel, the M/V Kennicott, because of its large size, cannot serve the communities of Akutan, False Pass, Chignik, Ouzinkie and Port Lions. 

When the Tustumena entered the shipyard for its planned overhaul in November 2012, it was expected to return to service by mid-April 2013. When it was discovered that more steel work was required, resulting in additional delays, the department modified the Kennicott’s spring schedule to include Aleutian Chain sailings.

In June of this year, the department returned the Kennicott to its original biweekly summer schedule, which included Kodiak, Seldovia and Homer with two roundtrip sailings, and then sailing cross-gulf from Whittier to Bellingham via Yakutat, Juneau and Ketchikan. This was necessary due to sailing frequency, capacity and traffic demand. 

From June through August, the Kennicott made 14 roundtrip sailings between Kodiak and Homer. Further, during the same timeframe, the vessel sailed between Southcentral Alaska and the Lower 48 seven times. Every Whittier to Bellingham sailing was sold out for the summer — often as much as six months in advance. It was clear to the department that altering or canceling any portion of the Kennicott’s remaining summer schedule would have adversely affected thousands of Alaskans.

The Kennicott’s Whittier to Bellingham “express run” sailings are significant for residents and businesses, because they are the only surface option available for Alaskans to travel between Southcentral Alaska and the Lower 48 without traveling through Canada, where passports and other requirements restrict many U.S. citizens. The “express run” also transports thousands of military personnel and families moving to and from Alaska. 

Unfortunately, the Tustumena’s return to service continues to be delayed into October. These delays have been unexpected and untimely, as communities exclusively relying on the Tustumena remain without ferry service. Although it has been a difficult and challenging time, once delivered, the ferry will be in good repair and capable of providing safe and reliable service to the communities of Kodiak and western Alaska. 

This fall, the Kennicott, which recently returned from the Aleutian Chain, will provide service to Homer, Seldovia and Kodiak through mid-October. The vessel was scheduled to go into the Ketchikan shipyard in the middle of September for its annual overhaul. This has been pushed back to ensure service for the communities mentioned, but because of mandatory Coast Guard regulatory requirements, the ferry will need to enter the shipyard on Oct. 20. The department remains cautiously optimistic that the Tustumena will be fully operational by that time.

Looking ahead, the department has begun the design replacement process for the Tustumena. Including extensive public input, the design is anticipated to take approximately 20 months and, depending on available funding, construction will take between two and three years. This project will guarantee coastal communities of Southcentral and Southwest Alaska dependable and safe ferry service well into the future.

The department has looked at every option available to fill the gaps during this challenging period. We appreciate the patience and understanding from residents of affected communities. Hiring a privately-owned ocean-class ferry with the characteristics of the Tustumena has been an impossible endeavor. The Tustumena is exclusively built for the waters of Southwest Alaska, and there just aren’t any vessels, including the Kennicott, that can provide the same level of service.

While there is no perfect solution to this problem other than the Tustumena returning to service, the department looks forward to its reliable operation in the future and its timely replacement with a new vessel designed to meet Alaska’s unique needs. 

Pat Kemp is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.