It'll be hard for state to resume ferry service to Prince Rupert

Numerous challenges are stopping the resumption of Alaska Marine Highway service to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, the ferry system’s director said at a conference of Southeast officials last week.

During a Southeast Conference transportation symposium in Juneau on Feb. 8, Ketchikan Vice Mayor Glen Thompson asked for an update about service to the Canadian port, which was a regular stop for Alaska ferries for decades until 2019, with only a brief return to service in 2022.

Craig Tornga, the ferry system’s marine director, listed the challenges to resuming service to the convenient port, which offers a closer and less expensive connection to the North American highway system than travelers riding the ships to Bellingham, Washington.

It’s about a six-hour ferry ride from Ketchikan to Rupert, and more than 40 hours from Ketchikan to Bellingham.

In order to make runs to Prince Rupert, the Alaska Marine Highway System needs a ship that meets international Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) standards for ship design and staffing levels — and the state has only two ferries that meet that standard.

One is the Kennicott, which will be tied up for the second summer in a row due to a shortage of crew. The other is the 61-year-old Matanuska, which is out of service pending a decision whether to spend millions of dollars to replace rusted steel and correct multiple safety deficiencies.

The Matanuska, one of the original members of the state fleet, had been compliant with SOLAS requirements as recently as two years ago. But it would be a challenge to maintain that compliance, given the ship’s age, issues with its design and a revised system for requesting SOLAS waivers, Tornga explained.

The Matanuska is awaiting its turn in drydock in Ketchikan for a scan of its bottom hull to determine the amount of bad steel. Until the state has that information, it cannot estimate the cost for repairs and to meet SOLAS standards, Tornga said.

In December, Tornga reported that initial scans didn’t look rosy, with thin areas of steel in the car deck and the bow-thruster room.

Even if scans find no additional significant issues with the ship’s hull, several of the Matanuska’s deck corridors stop at dead-ends, which would require the installation of new exit doors.

Tornga also noted that some 60 “antique” doors on the ship would need to be replaced with new ones that would automatically close in the event of a fire. In addition, the crew quarters are located below the ship's waterline, which would need to be addressed to maintain strict compliance with SOLAS standards.

At one time, those structural problems wouldn’t have necessarily prevented SOLAS recertification. The U.S. Coast Guard might have waived some of the deficiencies and allowed the ship to maintain its SOLAS compliance. But under a new agreement between the U.S. and Canada, Tornga said, getting a waiver is much more cumbersome.

“If we want any waiver now, it’s not done locally here, as it was in the past,” he explained. “It has to go back to Washington, D.C., to get their buy-off on it. And it also has to have a Canadian (approval). … The reality of that is we would probably never get the 60-year-old Matanuska a waiver,” meaning a lot of costly repair work to the ship will be needed.

Beyond SOLAS, the dock that the state ferries use in Prince Rupert is in “bad shape and needs to be replaced,” Tornga said. Previous attempts to make those repairs several years ago wound up deadlocked over conflicting U.S. and Canadian regulations, each requiring the use of domestic materials, such as steel, on the project.

A possible solution that has emerged from recent meetings would have Prince Rupert cover the roughly $35 million replacement cost for the dock, rather than the state of Alaska contracting for the work, with Alaska reimbursing the city by increasing its annual lease payments by about $1 million a year, Tornga said.

The Wrangell Sentinel contributed reporting for this story.


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