If the state’s budget outlook remains unchanged, the Alaska Marine Highway System will begin investigating whether to surplus the state ferry Taku in the next six months.
“Right now, we’re looking at the Taku first, and that’s why we put it out of service,” said Capt. John Falvey, general manager of the ferry system, in a telephone interview on Friday.
The state hasn’t hit that point yet, Falvey stressed, saying it’s a “conversation that’s got to happen at high levels.”
Falvey said he and Michael Neussl, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation, have discussed what’s next for the Taku, and “everything from selling it to trying to run it again” is on the table.
A final decision on the fate of the Taku would sit with DOT Commissioner Marc Luiken, according to Falvey.
During a presentation to Southeast Conference in September, this year held in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Neussl said he believed the ferry system would sustain itself by reducing the size of the fleet.
“I think the numbers are speaking that we can’t afford to operate an 11-ship fleet with the frequency of service that we’ve kind of become accustomed to,” Neussl said on Sept. 15.
Getting rid of the ship has its own costs. The state could surplus the vessel or scrap it, but scrapping the Taku comes with clean-up costs.
“We’re not driving forward in earnest to start writing reports or starting to look at the cost of one thing compared to another,” Falvey said.
The Taku would be on the block before others because it’s the smallest of the system’s mainliners, he said. As the state’s budget forces the system to cut service and take ferries out of service, the ferries that are operating will run closer to capacity.
“It’s a fine line between cost savings and the ability to generate revenue with bigger ships,” Falvey said. “We looked a lot at that before we decided to take Taku out of service.”
The Taku is in layup status for the winter. The ferry system’s proposed 2016 summer schedule calls for the mainliner to remain there through Sept. 30.
There’s eight weeks of paperwork, an overhaul and maintenance work between its current state and the 52-year-old Taku’s return to service, according to Falvey.
Its layup status in the First City will save the system cash through the winter as a “hotel ship,” Falvey said, meaning it will board the crew of other ferries going through maintenance at the Ketchikan Shipyard.
The Taku’s certificate of inspection was set to expire in July, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The vessel was put into an inactive status before the expiration date, Falvey said, which allows the vessel to come back online faster than it would had it lost its certificate.
“We took those extra steps to give ourselves that margin of safety should the boat run again — and maybe it will,” Falvey said.
The Taku will stay in Ketchikan through the winter and will most likely remain at the state berth throughout its 2016 layup.
It sailed within the Inside Passage, from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka and on to Juneau and Skagway.
It was sidelined earlier this year because of a backlog of maintenance work on the Matanuska and the Malaspina.
The Taku, built in Seattle, is designed to carry 350 passengers, 69 vehicles and a crew of 42.
It will carry a crew of 11 in layup. Most of the positions on the vessel, one of the original three that created the ferry system, were cut between July and August.
The Taku is one of three ferries that meets international safety of life at sea requirements, which allows it to dock in Prince Rupert. The Matanuska and the Kennicott also have the SOLAS classification.