Extra ferry sailing will pick up waitlist travelers in Bellingham

With more than 260 would-be ferry passengers stuck on a waitlist for travel out of Bellingham, Washington, and sailings full until late July, the Alaska Marine Highway System has scheduled an extra run of the Matanuska to bring the people and their vehicles to the state.

The additional sailing is scheduled to leave Bellingham on May 25.

There was time in the ship's schedule, which ferry management had been holding open in hopes the Matanuska could restart service that week to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, after being gone from the Canadian port for almost three years.

But delays in making arrangements for U.S. and Canadian customs clearance and operations at the port moved the resumption of Prince Rupert service to June, leaving time for the Matanuska to make the extra sailing to Bellingham in May.

The Alaska Marine Highway System sees heavy demand "for the Bellingham sailings in the spring as people traveling to Alaska return home, report to jobs, visit family or move their households," the state said in its announcement last Friday, explaining the growing waitlist.

The ferry system anticipates the extra sailing "will fill up quickly, as there is no other mainline space available until late July on the Matanuska, and late August on the Kennicott."

The Kennicott, which is scheduled for 11 trips to Bellingham this summer on its cross-gulf sailings that include stops in Ketchikan and Juneau, is scheduled to get back to work this weekend after winter maintenance.

By using open days in the Matanuska's schedule, the one-time disruption to travelers in Southeast the week of the extra Bellingham sailing will be minimal, and they will be rescheduled, the ferry system said.

The 450-passenger Matanuska operates a weekly round-trip between Bellingham and Southeast Alaska. The ferry system had been looking forward to bringing back the system's largest ferry, the Columbia, to add additional weekly service to Bellingham this summer. But after being taken out of service in the fall of 2019 for repairs and to save money, the ship remains tied up in Ketchikan as the state has been unsuccessful in hiring enough crew to put the vessel back to work.

"We're not ready to make a statement on the Columbia at this time," Sam Dapcevich, state Department of Transportation spokesman, said last Friday.

Pending a decision whether to operate the Columbia at all this year, the state has not been accepting reservations on the ship, though it had announced eight months ago it hoped the ferry would go back to work in May.

Scheduling issues aside, the Marine Highway System reported it is "expecting a strong summer season as the economy picks up and people start to return to travel." The ferry system's marketing staff "are forecasting RV traffic will increase significantly this summer." Health concerns and travel restrictions cut deeply into passenger and vehicle loads the past two years.

And despite high gasoline and diesel prices causing concerns that people may not want to take long road trips this summer, the Marine Highway System, which operates with a state subsidy, said its rates for trucks and RVs on the vehicle deck may turn out to be cheaper in some cases than shipping by barge from Puget Sound to Southeast Alaska after factoring in barge company fuel surcharges.


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