Funding would be needed to bring back Inter-Island Ferry

Restoration of Inter-Island Ferry Authority service from Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island to Wrangell and Petersburg would take money. The service ended in 2008, and the two communities will talk about what it would take to bring back the run, how much it would cost and who would pay.

The Petersburg borough assembly last month voted unanimously to send a letter to the Wrangell assembly to start talks on possibly restoring the route.

Wrangell assembly members at their Oct. 25 meeting directed Borough Manager Jeff Good to talk with his counterpart in Petersburg and report back.

“What kind of passenger load would they need to make this work, how many vehicles,” Wrangell Mayor Patty Gilbert asked about the finances of restarting the route in an interview a few days after the assembly meeting. There was not enough ridership to cover the costs when the small ferry operation served the two communities 2006-2008, she said.

“I have some concerns,” Gilbert added.

In addition, she said, “We cannot ace out our own private enterprises in town.” Muddy Water, a Wrangell-based tour and charter boat operator, has a new 38-foot-long catamaran that it is running occasionally from Wrangell to Banana Point, at the southern end of Mitkof Island about 28 miles highway miles south of Petersburg.

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority operates two ships, each with room for about 190 passengers and up to 30 vehicles, providing daily service between Ketchikan and Hollis, on the east side of Prince of Wales Island. The drive between Hollis and Coffman Cove covers about 75 miles. The Alaska state ferry does not serve Hollis or Coffman Cove.

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority has been operating for 20 years, and carries about 40,000 passengers and 10,000 vehicles a year between Ketchikan and Hollis. It receives $250,000 a year from the state, and covers the rest of its million-dollar budget with fare revenues, said Ron Curtis, general manager. It receives federal funding for ship maintenance, he said.

Former Gov. Frank Murkowski initiated the Wrangell-Petersburg discussion after he visited Petersburg in September to discuss the area’s unmet transportation needs, and then spoke later in September at an economic forum in Wrangell. He has advocated for restarting the run between Coffman Cove to Wrangell and Petersburg, particularly in the summer to help promote tourism.

It would cost about $9,000 a day in fuel and crew expenses to operate the route, Curtis said, not counting any maintenance or other expenses.

Back 15 years ago, the inter-island ferry carried an average of 16 passengers on each segment between the three communities, he said.

“Wrangell and Petersburg would need to get together and say, ‘We want to do something,’” Curtis said, which would include some sort of commitment to cover costs if passenger revenues come up short.

The ferry authority has been brainstorming ideas, and maybe summer-only service would help hold down expenses, he said.

Perhaps federal money for ferry systems, included in last year’s infrastructure spending bill, could help subsidize the service, Petersburg Assemblymember Dave Kensinger said at the borough assembly’s Sept. 22 meeting.


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