The Columbia docks at the terminal in Haines while in service previously. The Alaska Marine Highway vessel, which was taken out of service as a cost-cutting measure in 2019, is scheduled to resume voyages between Bellingham and Southeast Alaska in February while the Matanuska undergoes renovations. (Geraldine Young / Alaska DOTPF)

The Columbia docks at the terminal in Haines while in service previously. The Alaska Marine Highway vessel, which was taken out of service as a cost-cutting measure in 2019, is scheduled to resume voyages between Bellingham and Southeast Alaska in February while the Matanuska undergoes renovations. (Geraldine Young / Alaska DOTPF)

Columbia to resume mainline ferry service next month

Vessel grounded in 2019 to save costs now needed due to extra repairs planned for Matanuska

The Columbia is scheduled to resume voyages between Bellingham, Washington, and Southeast Alaska on Feb. 13, more than three years after being taken out of service for cost-saving reasons, due to a more-extensive-than-expected overhaul of the Matanuska ferry, state transportation officials announced Wednesday.

The discovery of hazardous materials and other problems by crew when the overhaul of Matanuska began in November means officials are considering an extended overhaul to remedy numerous additional issues resulting from the ship’s initial design, a statement by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities notes.

The 418-foot Columbia, which has been used as a long-term hotel for ferry crew while getting ongoing service work in Ketchikan, is scheduled for further work this month before getting mandatory inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping before returning to service.

“Typically they build in a little bit of a buffer to be safe,” Sam Dapcevich, a transportation department spokesperson, said when asked Wednesday the likelihood of the Columbia being ready to resume voyages by the announced date.

The nearly 50-year-old Columbia is able to stop at the same ports as the Matanuska, except Kake and Prince Rupert, he said. Prince Rupert will get service from the Kennicott, while officials are revising the LeConte schedule to add Kake to its routes.

“This underscores the continued need to build redundancy into the system — we need vessels that can take over routes if one of our ships requires an extended repair, like we had in this case,” Katherine Keith, deputy commissioner of the transportation department, said in a prepared statement.

A timeline for the extended overhaul of the Matanuska is still being determined, Dapcevich said. In addition to removing hazardous materials and making standard repairs, possible changes to the original design include opening up dead-end corridors and upgrading the ship’s fire and smoke detection systems.

Sailings by the Columbia were put on hold in 2019 because it was more costly to operate than the Matanuska, but state officials initially planned last year to have it resume mainline service this winter. That decision was reversed in September, however, with Dapcevich stating at the time “we feel it would be a better backup ship than being the primary vessel out there.”

The Columbia is scheduled to undergo its mandatory annual overhaul in a year, but Dapcevich said Wednesday it’s too early to tell if it will again be out of service indefinitely or resume service in place of the Matanuska or fill some other role.

“It’s about 11 years younger than the Matanuska so hopefully we’ll get some more life out of it,” he said.

The Alaska Marine Highway is also pursuing other upgrades and projects in what officials call a policy shift after Gov. Mike Dunleavy made drastic budget and service cuts during his first term, resulting in the ferry system sharing the lowest grade in state’s most recent infrastructure report card. Notable among the impacts are sparse sailings to many Southeast Alaska communities during winter.

Among the additional upcoming projects is an effort to replace the Tustumena that serves communities in Southcentral Alaska, Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula, and the Aleutian Chain, according to the transportation department.

“The first of three (contractor bid requests) for the replacement vessel received several competitive proposals and an award is anticipated in the coming weeks,” the department’s statement notes.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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