Christening for Tazlina; funeral for Juneau Access
The Alaska Department of Transportation has pegged Aug. 11 for christening the M/V Tazlina as the newest state ferry.
The 280-foot Tazlina and its twin sister ship the M/V Hubbard, known as Alaska class ferries or day boats, are destined to start service in Lynn Canal next May, a mission they were specifically designed for.
But it’s in winter when the benefits of the Tazlina and Hubbard will be fully realized, according to DOT spokeswoman Aurah Landau, when smaller ferries that are less costly to operate are currently tasked with making the Lynn Canal runs.
“The new Alaska class ferries are bigger boats than some of the small boats running in Lynn Canal. They should be able to run in the kind of weather that sometimes forces ferry trip cancellations. These boats are bigger, they’re longer, deeper, heavier, so they can handle much higher winds and seas,” Landau said. “So bringing those boats online should offer much more reliable service in Lynn Canal.
The Tazlina and the Hubbard are not only the largest vessels ever built in Alaska — at Vigor Industrial’s Ketchikan shipyard — they are also the first state ferries built here as well.
Vigor Alaska Development Manager Doug Ward said the $101 million contract price agreed to in 2014 still stands, but added there is still a lot of work to do on the Hubbard, which is scheduled for completion next spring. The completion is a few months behind the original target to have both ships done by this October.
“This is a big project, but we managed to get through the thing and the Hubbard is coming along really well. A good part of the structural steel work is complete now,” Ward said.
Meanwhile, Landau said the Alaska Marine Highway System is still waiting to hear back on its request for a waiver from the Buy America Act for a $222 million, 330-foot ferry to replace the aging Tustumena.
The federal law requires steel and other primary components for American vessels be sourced domestically even if no one in the country is producing them.
The state has been waiting to hear back from the FHWA on the waiver for more than a year.
“We’re just waiting for the Buy America waiver to come back and then we can begin the bid process. (The waiver) will affect if we have to go back and redesign and it will affect construction costs and abilities,” Landau said.
Once the vessel, which has been designed, goes out to bid it should be ready for service after a few years of construction, she added.
State ferry construction is eligible for federal money similar to highway projects, but accepting the funding means bidding must be open to all shipyards nationwide.
The state self-funded the Tazlina and Hubbard in an effort to make sure they could be built in Alaska.
Ward said it is too early to say whether or not Vigor, which owns other shipyards in the Pacific Northwest, will bid on the Tustumena replacement project or even if it could be built in Ketchikan at all, given it will be a much larger vessel than the Alaska class ferries.
“We’re going to look at (the Tustumena replacement) and of course we won’t know until we see the request for proposal,” Ward said.
Feds close out Juneau Access
The Federal Highway Administration has closed out the controversial Juneau Access road project as state transportation managers prepare to christen the first of two new ferries that will serve as the primary road link of the future to the capital city.
The Alaska Department of Transportation announced July 19 that FHWA Alaska Division Administrator Sandra Garcia-Aline signed a record of decision affirming Gov. Bill Walker’s decision to not have the state extend the Glacier Highway up to 50 miles north of Juneau.
In 2016 Walker chose the “no action” alternative from seven options evaluated in the environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the long-running Juneau Access Improvement project, largely in response to the $3 billion-plus budget deficits the state was facing at the time.
In May the Legislature moved $21 million left over from other DOT projects to Juneau Access. Landau said the money will sit in the project account at least for the time being.
“It can remain in the account until acceptable alternative concepts are proposed and agreed upon by stakeholders, (or) the Legislature can always make a change to the funding status,” Landau said.
The annual budget shortfall was reduced to about $700 million this year but Walker said the project still faced several challenges in a prepared statement.
“Improving Juneau access continues to be a priority for us. But the practicality of this project — a road extended to a yet-to-be-built ferry terminal through more than 40 avalanche zones, with a history of litigation — that makes it difficult to justify these kinds of expenditures as we focus on a sustainable fiscal future for Alaska.”
In 2006 the FHWA identified the 50-mile Glacier Highway extension amongst several other road options up either side of Lynn Canal as its preference for the project.
That decision was eventually thrown out in U.S. District Court after a group led by the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council sued the federal agency contending the original Juneau Access EIS did not adequately evaluate other options and environmental impacts of the chosen plan.
The State of Alaska appealed the decision and eventually lost the case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which led to the drafting of a supplemental EIS.
Former Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration again selected the 50-mile highway extension in 2014 while the supplemental EIS was in draft form, but Walker reversed the state’s choice during development of the final supplemental EIS.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Dunleavy criticized Walker’s decision in a press release from his campaign that alleges not building the road leaves Juneau — the only state capital outside Hawaii inaccessible by land — without a sustainable transportation plan.
“Alaska continues to rank at the bottom of the states in economic performance. We need to get our state moving and we need leadership that will work to create jobs and economic prosperity,” Dunleavy said in a formal statement.
“Juneau Access is a project which will employ hundreds of Alaskans in the construction phase, and provide lasting economic opportunity.”
Landau said all of the alternatives reviewed in the Juneau Access EIS have sufficient capacity to meet current transportation demands in and out of the northern end of the city, but noted every mode of transportation has inherent factors that can limit expressed demand.
The Glacier Highway extension was estimated to cost $680 million in the final EIS and record of decision signed in June. That is roughly a $100 million increase in the expected cost from previously published versions of the EIS.
Because it is a project eligible for federal funding, FHWA could have funded up to about 90 percent of the construction costs, as is common for highway projects nationwide.
However, the project would not actually link Juneau to either Haines or Skagway — the communities at the northern end of Lynn Canal — as the road would dead-end about 20 miles south of Skagway. Shuttle ferry service between Haines, Skagway and a new ferry terminal at the end of the highway would increase daily ferry capacity, but many objected to that plan because it would leave ferry passengers who are traveling without a vehicle more than 50 miles from Juneau at the new terminal.
The existing Auke Bay ferry terminal just north of Juneau would have been closed under that plan.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].