Three Alaska Marine Highway System ferries are docked at its headquarters in Ketchikan as the Columbia arrives on July 16. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire)

Three Alaska Marine Highway System ferries are docked at its headquarters in Ketchikan as the Columbia arrives on July 16. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire)

Fixing the ferry’s future: Alaska Marine Highway steers fleet toward three replacements

Part two of a two-part series about the tricky navigation facing the Alaska Marine Highway System.

This story has been corrected to note a photo shows a museum display at the ferry terminal in Bellingham, Washington, not aboard the Columbia ferry.

When the Alaska Marine Highway System officially drops the first part of its three-part master plan with state lawmakers at the end of the month it also will be the first time the ferry system has had a fleet plan. 

That isn’t typical and starting from scratch is part of the reason it’s taking a while to pull it together, said AMHS Marine Director Craig Tornga. A draft of the three-year plan was circulated a few weeks ago.

[Also in this series: The cost of maintaining an aging ferry fleet | A fix is in for ferry payroll issues | Meet the fleet]

[Part 1: Help wanted on the Alaska Marine Highway | Meet some of tbe crew on the Columbia | New program puts retired troopers aboard]

The sexiest part — three new vessels in five years — got some attention. Paying for three new ships, even with a big chunk of federal money, will need the support of lawmakers.

The first of the three ships is referred to as “TRV,” a plan-jargon acronym that stands for Tustumena Replacement Vessel, as befits its purpose. Built in 1963 and one of four mainline vessels in the fleet, it’s 296 feet long and 59 feet wide. It’s not the first time there has been some effort toward replacing the vessel. Lawmakers came up with some matching funds in 2018. It is the first time a replacement plan has been this far down the waterway.

Tornga said the TRV is through about 80% of its $10 million design phase. The new vessel, as currently designed, will be 330 feet long, 74 feet wide and a draft of about 15 feet, so it’s a little bigger than its predecessor. The added width will help make the vessel more stable while increasing space for vehicle transport. Importantly, TRV will be a diesel-electric ship, bringing the fleet into the present century.

Visitors, some waiting to board the Columbia state ferry, look at a historic display at the ferry terminal in Bellingham, Washington, in July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire)

Visitors, some waiting to board the Columbia state ferry, look at a historic display at the ferry terminal in Bellingham, Washington, in July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire)

Federal money

Alaska — and AMHS — take the lion’s share of the $1 billion set aside for ferry projects in the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Acts, something a lot of people have credited to U.S. Sen Lisa Murkowski. One provision, in particular, helped shape that: projects to be considered for the grants had to cover routes greater than 50 miles.

Alaska was included in a portion of the $250 million earmarked for a pilot project — an electric or low-emission ferry — with one pilot test naming AMHS. Alaska also is slated to get $73 million of some $342 million set aside for the construction of ferry boats and terminals. The grand total is $286 million, earmarked for six grants. It comes with a catch: the Alaska State Legislature needs to come up with matching funds that combined total about $105 million.

There are some people who would like to see the state legislature take a more active interest, including in Washington. During the last session, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed $10 million of the $20 million in backstop money for the ferry, part of nearly $200 million in line-item vetoes.

“If these federal funds are used simply as a supplement for the state’s obligation to the AMHS budget, this generational opportunity will be squandered, and we’ll be right back where we started,” Murkowski said in a prepared statement earlier this month. “This is a one-time injection of federal funding designed to revitalize the Alaska Marine Highway System over the next five years, and help it meet Alaskans on their schedule.”

“We can’t waste this chance,” the statement concluded.

Joseph Plesha, communications director for the senator, said Wednesday there has been communication between Murkowski’s team and the Dunleavy administration.

Getting it done

Tornga has only been on the job since April. He started his career working on ships, working his way up with the marine services division of Crowley, a logistics, marine and energy company based in Jacksonville. His last job was senior vice president for Kirby Offshore Marine in Houston, which included responsibility for improving the fleet’s reliability. He left after six years, thinking that he’d take it easy at his home in Alaska. Then this job came up.

Tornga admits that getting the three ships funded in a relatively short time period will be a challenge.

“To say that all funding is lined up, no, but it is possible to turn it around” in five years, he said. Moreover, he said, it’s necessary.

“Five of our nine ships are over 45 years old,” he said. “All of those have worked past their time.”

If the ferry system had been managed as a business, the ships would already have been replaced by now, Tornga said. There is a reason why shipping concerns change out vessels every 25-30 years: because expenses of keeping the older ships running start to mount.

The second of new vessels proposed is referred to as “MRV” for Mainliner Replacement Vessel. That gives some flexibility as to whether it ultimately replaces the Columbia or the Matanuska. One thing for sure is that it will be a lot more efficient than either one: It is slated to be the state’s first diesel-battery-powered hybrid ferry.

The third vessel, an electric or low-emission ferry, would replace the Lituya, the smallest vessel in the fleet. The Lituya would remain part of the fleet but move to another short route.

The nearly completed design phase of TRV cost about $10 million, whereas the full $340 million build still needs funding. That shows up in the draft version of the capital budget as $170 million in both 2025 and 2026. The draft also envisions some funding for the MRV in 2025 ($11.8 million) and 2026 ($23.6 million).

The replacement for the Lituya is penciled in at $40 million for 2025 and $100 million for 2026. Those figures could change in the final version.

“We spend much more on operating maintenance than we should,” Tornga said. The new ships come with a price, but the efficiency they’ll deliver will bring big savings in operating costs.

Understanding the fine print

That $105 million needed for matching funds might actually be a lot less, according to Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for AMHS, who provided a DOT-labeled document breaking down matching funds. That’s because several sources of income and an “innovative financing tool” can be used to reduce the total.

For example, AMHS already has matching funds for the $68.5 million in federal money slated for the TRV, he said. The department will be able to use an existing match appropriated for the Tustemena’s replacement during fiscal year 2018. Further, mechanisms around the ferry system’s classification as a toll facility will enable it to reduce the remainder of the matching funds owed by $40.9 million, according to the document titled “Federal Rural Ferry Grant State Matching Briefing.”

There is no doubt that the TRV is much farther along than any other effort to replace a mainliner. AMHS has been working closely with the American Bureau of Shipping throughout the design process, Tornga said.

ABS is one of a handful of organizations that publish technical standards for ships and other marine structures, stamping approval that specific designs meet or exceed standards. Working with them throughout, rather than turning in all the plans at once, ensures any issues are flagged early on. That way they are fixed rather than added on. And it’s just the start of long-range planning.

Tornga said the 20% of the TRV design that remains involves finalizing propulsion and power, and its integration into the hull. The design of the elevator is also underway.

All of the new ships are being planned with an eye toward standardization. Maintaining the existing fleet is challenging for a lot of reasons, but one is there are several different kinds of vessels. That means the ships require different parts from different places, some of which no longer exist. And it means the licensed mates that run the ships from the bridge have to learn how different ships operate. Standardization would make it easier for them to work across the fleet.

Tornga acknowledged operating within a government environment took some adapting. This particular job also comes with “monolithic bureaucracy,” because he is often dealing across agencies, not just DOT, which is home to ferry system. He said AMHS has a lot of support from DOT Commissioner Ryan Anderson, which makes it easier.

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘why did you take this job?’ It’s not for titles at this stage of my career,” he said. His goal is to make a difference. “It’s not always easy to move a culture, and make changes, but it’s fun when you get some results.”

• Contact Meredith Jordan at or (907) 615-3190.

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