What others say: Keep the ferry system healthy in Southwest

  • Tuesday, August 9, 2016 6:09pm
  • Opinion

Imagine life in Juneau without ferries.

It isn’t a pleasant mental picture. Yet, in 2013, this is exactly what the residents of Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula and Dutch Harbor experienced. Their regular ferry, the Tustumena, was taken out of service for most of the year. Laid up in a Seward shipyard on a five-month renovation that took a year, the Tustumena couldn’t deliver produce and passengers to the Emerald Isle or America’s busiest commercial fishing port.

Kodiak, a city half the size of Juneau, received monthly ferry service — and that was it.

Now, as reported in a story published Sunday in the Empire, the Tustumena appears nearing a permanent end. After 52 years of severe service in the open ocean, cracks are persistently appearing in its bones. This isn’t osteoporosis, but it may be metal fatigue, a condition more fatal to a ship than the former issue is to a human being.

A detailed survey of the Tustumena is now under way, and after the state finishes several hundred thousand dollars on that examination, Alaskans will have a better idea of the Tustumena’s health. Even if the report is a good one, however, we know the Tustumena’s days are numbered. At best, it might have a decade left.

The Tustumena fulfills a unique role in the state’s ferry system. It is the only ship that can serve every port on the route out to Dutch Harbor. The modern ocean-going ferry Kennicott is too big to fit at some of the city-owned piers that accommodate state ferries in Southwest.

In Southeast Alaska, we are fortunate to have the services of several ferries. The Malaspina, Columbia, Matanuska, Aurora and LeConte are all familiar names in Juneau. The Tustumena is a stranger here, but it is no less dear to the Alaska Marine Highway and its users. In December, we expect Gov. Bill Walker’s budget request will include tens of millions of dollars to start construction on a replacement for the Tustumena. Despite the state’s catastrophic budget situation, it has the money to spend on this particular need. Thanks to foresighted moves by coastal legislators, the state’s ferry vessel replacement fund has nearly $40 million.

The state is estimating the construction cost of a new Tustumena will be $237 million. The federal government will pay 90 percent of this cost; the state will pay the remaining 10 percent. Spending from the vessel replacement fund is affordable and necessary. The Tustumena fulfills a vital role in our state, and even though Southeast Alaska will not directly benefit from a new Tustumena, we believe the entire state will benefit from a vibrant and healthy ferry system.

The Kennicott, the only other vessel capable of serving any of the Southwest ports, makes more money for the state when it sails the long route between Alaska and Washington state. Alaska is better off when it uses ships appropriate for their roles.

By performing a one-for-one replacement, new Tustumena for old Tustumena, we trust that any increases in operating expenses will be moderate — if they exist at all.

It will take time to bid out the project and actually build the new ship. If our existing, elderly Tustumena only has a few years left, we’d better use those years productively.

For this reason, we fully endorse the project to replace the Tustumena and we hope that the Legislature, when it convenes in January, will follow suit.

— Juneau Empire, Aug. 4, 2016

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