Members of the public walk onto the ferry Tazlina on Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Members of the public walk onto the ferry Tazlina on Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Amid concerns about ferries’ future, hundreds show up to greet new ship

Tazlina is the newest addition to a fleet clouded in uncertainty

It’s been a strange few weeks for Capt. Michael Schlechter.

Schlechter, who served on the F/V Fairweather for 15 years, steered the Fairweather on its final voyage in Alaska last month and piloted the new Alaska-class Ferry Tazlina up and down Lynn Canal last week.

“It’s been weird because I was the last captain on the Fairweather,” Schlechter said. “I took it down to Ketchikan, locked the door behind me and left, and then came over here and started the reverse process here.”

The door to the Tazlina was wide open Sunday, and about 800 people walked through the new ferry as part of an open house. Schlechter was one of many Alaska Marine Highway System or Department of Transportation and Public Facilities employees meeting people and answering questions. Many of the new crew members were crew members on the Fairweather, Schlechter said.

The Alaska-class ferry — which is the first of two — was constructed in Alaska by Alaskans, which was a source of pride for many on board. One of those was Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who was one of the driving forces in getting the funding for the ferry. He said he was impressed by the workmanship on board and said he thought it was constructed better than previous ferries the state has gotten from out of state.

There was even a huge “Made in Alaska” sticker on the side of the boat that Stedman said was a pleasant surprise to him.

A “Made in Alaska” sticker is pictured on the side of the new ferry Tazlina, which was all constructed in Alaska, on Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

A “Made in Alaska” sticker is pictured on the side of the new ferry Tazlina, which was all constructed in Alaska, on Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Juneau resident Christopher Coutu, touring the vessel with his wife and children, said the significance of the ferry’s in-state construction wasn’t lost on them.

“It’s exciting, I think, having a ship built in Alaska by Alaskans for Alaskans,” Coutu said, “and then coming in here and letting Alaskans come and look through the ship before its maiden voyage, I think it’s just great.”

The vessel was built specifically to withstand the rough conditions in Lynn Canal, DOT&PF Deputy Director Mary Siroky said on board. The fast ferries — the Fairweather and the Chenega — could never quite run as fast as they were designed to because of the tumultuous seas, she said.

Siroky said public feedback was vital in the process. At one point, the ferry was going to have an open-air car area, but members of the public were vehemently opposed to exposing their cars to the sea spray, so the Tazlina’s vehicle area is enclosed.

[Photos: Take a look inside Alaska’s newest ferry, the Tazlina]

The ferry will make the same two runs three times per week, DOT&PF spokesperson Aurah Landau said. The first day run will be Juneau to Haines, then Haines to Skagway, then Skagway to Haines. The ship will stay in Haines overnight. The next day, it will sail to Skagway, then back to Haines, and then to Juneau. The ship will then start that cycle over, and do it a total of three times per week.

The first voyage with passengers is scheduled for 7 a.m. Tuesday, and AMHS General Manager John Falvey said there are still tickets available.

Members of the public walk onto the ferry Tazlina on Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Members of the public walk onto the ferry Tazlina on Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

While most of the feedback Sunday was positive, there were still concerns about the ferry system’s long-term future and how the Tazlina fits into that. With no crew quarters on the Tazlina, for example, the ship can only sail in 12-hour increments. There’s been talk about adding a new ferry terminal to make the runs shorter, but any change to the infrastructure is still likely a few years off.

Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, said it was fun to look around at the engine room and rest of the vessel, but she couldn’t help but worry about the future.

“It’s something new and sparkly, so that’s great,” Hannan said, “and making sure we continue to have great service up Lynn Canal. That’s great, but there are mixed emotions around the long-term planning and what we’re going to do and how we’re going to serve the region.”

[‘We’re not giving up our ferries’: Hundreds rally at the Capitol]

The marine highway’s short-term future is also uncertain. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration proposed cutting ferry service off at the beginning of September for the winter. The Alaska Senate has a proposal to keep the ferries running in the winter but with reduced service.

Siroky said that under the Senate’s plan, the ferry runs that bring in the most money would get the most service this winter. The most lucrative runs are the ones from Bellingham, she said. Runs to smaller communities are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

“Frankly, the village runs don’t make a lot of money, so those communities will probably see a little less service,” Siroky said.

As part of Dunleavy’s plan, the state has contracted with Northern Economics to do a study into the best way to move forward with the marine highway. The other bidder, MAP Consulting LLC, submitted a lower bid but was passed over, the Associated Press reported last month. MAP Consulting is challenging the bid, according the report.

As he watched hundreds of friends and neighbors flood the Tazlina, Coutu said Sunday’s event serves as an example to lawmakers about how vital the ferries are to Alaskans.

“At a time where they keep talking about budget cuts and budget cuts for the ferries, it’s really good to see investment in the marine highway system,” Coutu said. “It’s important, and I think the turnout today shows how important it is.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


Capt. Michael Schlechter, right, speaks with members of the public on the ferry Tazlina on Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Capt. Michael Schlechter, right, speaks with members of the public on the ferry Tazlina on Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

More in News

In this March 19, 2020, file photo Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, talks with reporters following a Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington. Murkowski acknowledged Thursday, June 4, that she’s “struggling” over whether she can support President Donald Trump given his handling of the virus and race crises shaking the United States. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Mattis emboldens GOPers to criticize Trump

Murkowski on Thursday called the rebuke by Trump’s first Pentagon chief “necessary and overdue.”

A pair of tents sits at the Infinity Pools above the Tutka Backdoor Trail in Kachemak Bay State Park on July 9, 2019. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
State officials urge Alaskans to get outside

During a virtual town hall, commissioners fielded questions from the public on state recreation.

COVID-19. (CDC)
Nonresident COVID-19 cases nearly double; 8 residents test positive

Seventeen of the 18 new nonresident cases are workers in the seafood industry.

Photo provided by Ocean Bluff B&B
                                Tammy Kehrer of Palmer sits on the deck overlooking Cook Inlet at Ocean Bluff B&B in Kasilof. Kehrer is the daughter of owner Kathy Carlisle.
B&B bookings take hit due to virus

Owners have been getting feelers from in-state visitors, but so far reservations have been rare.

A king salmon during the 67th annual Golden North Salmon Derby at the Don D. Statter Memorial Boat Harbor in August 2013. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Low king counts result in closures on southern Kenai Peninsula

As of Sunday, video weirs and sonar had counted 184 king salmon at the Anchor River.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks during a Friday, March 27, 2020 press conference in the Atwood Building in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Revised travel mandates to begin Friday

Those arriving from outside the state must self-quarantine, but revisions allow for exceptions.

Nikiski Fire Station #2, seen here on July 15, 2019 in Nikiski, Alaska. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)
3 in Nikiski fire service test positive for virus

11 members of the department have been quarantined due to the possibility of COVID-19 exposure.

The Devil’s Creek Trail in Chugach National Forest, seen June 15, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
During pandemic, Chugach National Forest mostly stays the same

One of the differences will be in how much volunteer help the forest gets.

In front and from left to right, Aaron Ford, Karianna Ford and Jenni Stowe hold signs at a protest on Sunday, May 30, 2020, at WKFL Park in Homer, Alaska, in support of people of color who have been the subject of police violence, including George Floyd, a man who died May 25, 2020, in a police encounter in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition to the “We (heart) our po po” sign — “po po” is slang for “police” — there also was a sign that read “Thank you HPD.” (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
Homer residents organize multiple demonstrations on racial injustice

Gatherings, protests and demonstrations have been held in Alaska from Anchorage to Haines to Bethel.

Most Read