Local vessel operators willing to contract with borough for shuttle service

Wrangell vessel owners who already shuttle passengers and freight around southern Southeast said they would be willing to contract with the borough for service to Petersburg and Coffman Cove, rather than see the borough subsidize a return of the more expensive Inter-Island Ferry Authority.

Zach Taylor, who operates the 38-foot catamaran Island Cat, and Eric Yancey, who operates the 75-foot landing craft Rainforest Islander, have expressed their willingness to contract with the borough to provide regular service between the communities.

“If Wrangell and Petersburg are interested in subsidizing an inter-island ferry system, then Muddy Water Adventures is up to the task,” Taylor wrote in a Nov. 7 letter to the borough assembly.

Whether ferry service happens through the Inter-Island Ferry Authority or a private enterprise, said Yancey, the borough would lose money. “Well, if they want to lose less money, they could hire me. It’s a more economical situation.”

Their responses were prompted by a letter to the Wrangell assembly from the Petersburg borough assembly last month, asking if the community would be willing to start talks to possibly restore the inter-island ferry route. The service ended in 2008, after just two years of operation, due to insufficient ridership and financial losses. The Inter-Island Ferry Authority continues its service between Ketchikan and Hollis on Prince of Wales Island.

“I appreciated Mayor Gilbert’s statement that she didn’t want to ‘ace out’ our own private enterprises in town,” Taylor wrote, after the assembly directed Borough Manager Jeff Good to talk with his counterpart in Petersburg and report back.

Taylor already uses his new vessel to transport passengers along the same route, at one-third the projected IFA cost and roughly twice the speed, he said. The IFA had reported it would cost about $9,000 a day in fuel and labor costs to serve the three communities.

“I don’t understand how it’s going to be better this time around doing the exact same thing, without making any major changes to the vessel or the facility,” Taylor said.

Taylor acknowledged the value of regular ferry service, but does not believe the IFA would be a practical solution. “There’s no denying that the (state) ferries are absolutely missed,” he said. “They are completely essential to our way of life here on the island. But they’re trying to bring back something that did not do well at all.”

Yancey shares Taylor’s perspective. He also provides on-call service to locals traveling to and from Petersburg and Coffman Cove. His vessel can also carry vehicles and other freight. He called a possible IFA restart a “major losing proposition” that would negatively impact the livelihoods of small business owners who have stepped up to fill the gaps in ferry service.

“The economy is no better than it was back in those days,” Yancey said of the IFA’s decision to pull out of Wrangell and Petersburg in 2008. “Short of it being subsidized at huge losses, it won’t function properly.”

“Bottom line is, there just isn’t that kind of ridership,” he added. The ferry authority’s ships can carry up to 190 passengers and 30 vehicles on each voyage.

Each year, Yancey transports about 100 vehicles, 400 to 500 passengers to Banana Point on the road system to Petersburg, and 700 to 1,000 passengers to Coffman Cove, including student athletes. In 2019, the IFA between Ketchikan and Hollis transported 44,200 passengers.

Despite the passenger load, ticket revenue only covers 79% of the IFA’s operating expenses. The operation still receives $250,000 in yearly state subsidies. “I just don’t think there’s that kind of demand to warrant that expense,” Yancey said.


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