The Alaska Marine Highway System has canceled scheduled mainline service until March 5 after realizing the issues with the last ferry breakdown will take longer to fix than anticipated, according to AMHS officials.
The Matanuska broke down two weeks ago as it sailed from Bellingham, Washington, and passengers have been waiting around for weeks in Juneau to leave after repairs were completed, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
“People think we knew all along that the Mat had bigger problems than it did,” said Mary Siroky, Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) during a House Transportation and Public Facilities meeting Thursday. “We didn’t. As soon as we recognized that we were in this serious of a situation we canceled. We are being as honest and forthright with the legislature and with the public, I’d like to say, as possible. We aren’t in the business of not providing you with accurate information.”
Siroky said that the repairs will be done under warranty, and the AMHS is being careful to avoid doing anything that might void the warranties.
Capt. John Falvey, AMHS General Manager, verified that the Tazlina will begin running on March 5.
“This looks a lot worse than it really is,” Falvey said. “It’s very unfortunate what happened there. We have had other breakdowns in past years that have been a lot longer than this one, but we’ve always had other mainline ships running to back them up. There’s nothing to back up the Matanuska. It’s down and we’re down. In the past we’ve never had that. We’ve always had the Columbia moving or one of the other mainliners moving and we would readjust those schedules. We would move people around. And we would get everybody where they were going by readjusting things.”
Falvey said it is accurate to say that the budget cuts implemented last year by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Legislature are playing a role in the schedule of boats and lack of backup options for the Matanuska.
“We really only have available the Hubbard,” said Matt McLaren, business and development manager for the AMHS. “And we have to get the doors installed… we’re still waiting on parts from China which have been delayed due to coronavirus.”
It’s not possible to put the Hubbard into service and delay putting the doors on because they already cut holes for them, AMHS officials said.
The AMHS is requesting $12.05 million in the FY2020 supplemental budget. Officials said that money is not to expand service to rural communities without scheduled winter service like Pelican or Hoonah, but to pay for unanticipated costs of already scheduled service. For instance, it was more expensive to run the Columbia in place of the Matanuska. Fuel has also been costing more than anticipated.
Even if the Legislature were to appropriate more funding to expand service in March, April, May and June to communities that have not had ferry service this winter, McLaren said there might not be any ferries to fulfill that need because now it’s a logistical issue as well as a financial one.
But some representatives said it’s still their top priority to return service to communities like Hoonah and Pelican.
“It’s an emergency for some of these areas,” said Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, in an interview after the meeting. But she said she thinks they have a good plan that will be successful to restore reasonable service to these communities using some federal money for 2021.
If the FY2020 supplemental budget request is not approved, the AMHS will have to cut service even further than it already has, McLaren said.
“I don’t know how you can pull service back anymore and still consider it service,” said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.
Mollie Barnes is a journalist based in Juneau, Alaska. She has written for the Juneau Empire, the London Evening Standard, Fodor’s Travel, Midwest Wine Press, and the Columbia Missourian. In 2015, she cofounded Fangirl the Magazine, a women’s magazine focused on video games and entertainment. She is originally from St. Louis and graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism. See more of her work at molliebarnes.contently.com or follow her on Twitter @holyguacamollie.