Alaska ferry system confronts costly reality of aging fleet

Age is a major issue behind the Alaska Marine Highway System’s pending master plan, which will go to state legislators this month.

The state ferry Columbia, which turns 50 next year, had been sidelined at the Ketchikan ferry dock for about three years until February. Management’s decision to park the vessel was based on the large expense of operating the ship, the costliest of any ferry in the fleet.

Things changed when it was discovered that the 60-year-old Matanuska, which had suffered a series of maintenance setbacks, had more serious issues that included hull corrosion. The Matanuska was docked while the Columbia, which had been used for crew housing and maintained in working condition over its break in service, came out of semi-retirement.

Columbia has run a full schedule, aside from one notable week in June, when a failure with the fire suppression system forced it to go offline. Lacking an available replacement vessel, Columbia’s weekly service between Bellingham, Washington, and Southeast Alaska was canceled, leaving hundreds of passengers and vehicles in the lurch.

The lack of replacement vessels in the event of another breakdown in the fleet — a likely occurrence given the age of the vessels — will persist until meaningful action is taken to upgrade the fleet.

The Alaska Marine Highway System plans to build a new mainline ferry, but it will take years to assemble several hundred million dollars of federal and state money, design the vessel and construct the ship.

Capt. Keith Hilliard, who serves on the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board, an advisory panel created by lawmakers last year, said the lack of reliability “is bad for business.” He hears regularly from people who say they don’t want to plan trips on the ferry system.

What that looks like on the vessels is a lot fewer trucks hauling freight.

“Commercial traffic is nowhere near what it used to be,” said Capt. Dave Turner, who has worked for AMHS for 14 years. The ships regularly carried more freight, “from 20-foot pups to 40-foot vans,” from companies like Cargill, Fred Meyer, Alaska Marine Lines and seafood companies. “We don’t see fish boxes out of Wrangell or Petersburg like before,” he said.

Meanwhile, the competition — barges and tugs — keep reliable schedules.

“They’re able to meet their schedules,” said Turner, who is captain of the state ferry Kennicott. “We get less and less vans because we’re less and less reliable.”

Hilliard said the question he often asks since joining the operations board is, “What is going to keep the community happy?” There are a lot of other factors, but “they all intertwine,” with a lack of reliability at the top of the list. “And that’s due to the aging fleet.”

The draft master plan provides an update on the Matanuska, which is scheduled to be in layup from 2024-2026. There are two areas requiring significant repairs — three if the vessel is to return to a schedule that includes Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

The first involves replacing “severely corroded” steel. The other major repair, termed Phase 2 and 3, involve “main vertical zone insulation upgrades,” which address hazardous material discovered during an overhaul in November 2022.

That doesn’t include the major expense associated with maintaining its certification under SOLAS, the standards under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. That certification would require refurbishing the entire cabin deck stateroom area, which has dead-end halls. It would also need to convert the chief mate’s stateroom into a safety center to comply with standards.

SOLAS is only required if the vessel were to resume service to Prince Rupert. It is not necessary to operate in U.S. waters.

Craig Tornga, marine director for AMHS, said the future of the Matanuska is uncertain.

Meanwhile, a lot of money has gone into keeping the Matanuska running over the years. It underwent a major refit in 2018-2019 that included replacing engines and a number of systems — at a cost of more than $40 million. Even so, issues arose with the propulsion system in January 2020 that put it on the Juneau dock until that March, when it moved to Ketchikan for repairs with one engine and a tug escort.

After those repairs were finished, the vessel was back online and running until December 2021, when issues with the hull were discovered. The Matanuska returned to service in 2022 until its November overhaul.

Expensive maintenance is going to be a factor for any of the older vessels, Tornga said.

As with Matanuska, AMHS has spent a lot of money keeping the Columbia in operation, including a refit in 2015 that included replacing its engines.

The Columbia is often referred to as the largest vessel in the AMHS fleet, but it might just as accurately be thought of as the heaviest. The Columbia weighs in at 3,946 gross tons, which along with its hull shape, make it a lot bulkier than the Matanuska’s 3,029 gross tons.

The trade-off is that Columbia can carry 499 passengers to the Matanuska’s 450-person maximum, and its car deck has 2,650 linear feet available compared to Matanuska’s 1,675 linear feet.

The difference shows up in fuel consumption: Columbia uses 397 gallons per hour compared to Matanuska’s 234 gallons per hour.


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