Workers load cars aboard the Columbia ferry during a stop in mid-July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire)

Workers load cars aboard the Columbia ferry during a stop in mid-July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire)

Fixing the ferry’s future: The cost of maintaining an aging fleet

Master plan seeks to replace existing ships that are inefficient and expensive to operate

In evaluating the massive investment the leadership at Alaska Marine Highway System is about to request of state lawmakers via its proposed master plan, consider the health and vitality of two of the fleet’s mainliners.

The Columbia, which turns 50 next year, had been sidelined on the Ketchikan ferry dock for more than three years until February. Management’s decision to park the vessel, once the grand dame of the fleet, was based on the sheer expense of operating the vessel, the most of any ship in the fleet.

[Also in this series: AMHS steers fleet toward three replacements | 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]

Things changed when it was discovered that the 60-year-old Matanuska, which had suffered a series of maintenance setbacks, had more serious issues that included hull corrosion. The Matanuska was docked while the Columbia, which had been used for crew housing and maintained in working condition over its respite, came out of semi-retirement.

Columbia has run a full schedule, aside from one notable week in June, when a failure with the fire suppression system — a key safety function — forced it to go offline. The bigger problem: the lack of an available replacement vessel. Without it, Columbia’s schedule was canceled, leaving hundreds of passengers and vehicles — some with time-sensitive materials — in the lurch.

Moreover, the lack of replacement vessels in the event of another breakdown in the fleet — a likely occurrence given the age of the vessels and numerous examples — will persist until meaningful action is taken to upgrade the fleet.

Passengers visit the bridge of the Columbia ferry during a stop in mid-July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire)

Passengers visit the bridge of the Columbia ferry during a stop in mid-July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire)

“Through investments in vessels, terminal infrastructure, internal support systems, and continued improvements in recruitment and retention of workforce, the system can begin to increase system reliability and begin to recover to better meet community service demands,” is how it’s stated in the draft of part one of the plan, which is being updated before being delivered to the Alaska State Legislature at the end of the month.

Capt. Keith Hilliard, who serves on the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board, puts it more bluntly: The lack of reliability “is bad for business.” He hears regularly from people who say they don’t want to plan trips on the ferry system.

What that looks like on the vessels is a lot fewer trucks hauling freight.

“Commercial traffic is nowhere near what it used to be,” said Capt. Dave Turner, who has worked for AMHS for 14 years. The ships regularly carried more freight, “from 20-foot pups to 40-foot vans,” from companies like Cargill, Fred Meyer, Alaska Marine Lines and seafood companies. “We don’t see fishboxes out of Wrangell or Petersburg like before.”

Meanwhile, the competition — barges and tugs — keep reliable schedules.

“They’re able to meet their schedules,” said Turner, who is captain of the Kennecott. “We get less and less vans because we’re less and less reliable.”

Hilliard said the question he often asks since joining the operations board is “what is going to keep the community happy?” There are a lot of other factors, but “they all intertwine,” with a lack of reliability at the top of the list. “And that’s due to the aging fleet.”

Status update on Matanuska

The draft plan provides an update on Matanuska, which is scheduled to be in layup from 2024-2026. There are two areas requiring significant repairs — three if the vessel were to return to a schedule that includes Prince Rupert in Canada.

The first involves replacing “severely corroded” steel in some of the tanks and voids. Void space is enclosed space inside the cargo area, but outside of containment areas. The other major repair, termed Phase 2 and 3, involve “main vertical zone insulation upgrades,” which presumably address hazardous material discovered during an overhaul in November 2022.

That doesn’t include the major expense associated with maintaining its certification under SOLAS, standards in place under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. That certification would require refurbishing the entire cabin deck stateroom area, which has dead-end halls. It would also need to convert the chief mate’s stateroom into a safety center to comply with standards.

It seems unlikely they are planning the SOLAS upgrades, because work would have to begin by December 2024. SOLAS is only required if the vessel were to resume the run to Prince Rupert.

Craig Tornga, marine director for AMHS, said it wasn’t accurate to say that the future of the Matanuska was in jeopardy, but its future is uncertain. A lot of questions remain about exactly what is needed. AMHS plans to meet with U.S. Coast Guard officials to sort out exactly what is required.

Meanwhile, a lot of money has gone into keeping the Matanuska running over the years. It underwent a major refit in 2018 that included replacing engines and a number of systems. Even so, issues arose with the propulsion system in January 2020 that put it on the Juneau dock until that March, when it moved to Ketchikan for repairs with one engine and a tug escort.

After those repairs were finished, the vessel was back online and running until December 2021, when issues with the hull were discovered. The Matanuska returned to service in 2022 until the November overhaul.

Expensive maintenance is going to be a factor for any of the older vessels, Tornga said. It’s the case for replacing some of the fleet. “You can keep operating them, but it’s at great expense,” he said.

A major refit of the Columbia ferry in 2015 included the installation of two new Wartsila engines, seen here in mid-July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire).

A major refit of the Columbia ferry in 2015 included the installation of two new Wartsila engines, seen here in mid-July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire).

The Columbia and the Matanuska

As with Matanuska, AMHS has spent a lot of money keeping the Columbia in operation, including a refit in 2015 that included replacing the old engines with Wartsila engines.

The two ships have a long parallel history, appearing in news stories side by side from the 1970s through the 1990s. When Columbia was brand-new in 1974 its handlers “grazed a rock” in Peril Strait near Sitka, which opened up a 2-3 foot hole in the hull. That year it was Matanuska picking up the schedule while Columbia went for surgery in drydock.

Columbia is often referred to as the largest vessel in the AMHS fleet, but it might just as accurately be thought of as the heaviest. At 418 feet long and 85 feet wide, the Columbia isn’t that much different in size from the 408-foot Matanuska, which has a 74-foot beam.

The difference is the weight scales, although Columbia’s bulky beam also slows it down. Columbia weighs in at 3,946 gross tons, which along with its hull shape, make it a lot bulkier than the Mat’s 3,029 gross tons. Matanuska has a normal crew capacity of 48 to Columbia’s 63.

The tradeoff, arguably, is that Columbia can carry 499 passengers to the Matanuska’s 450-person maximum, and its car deck has 2,650 linear feet available compared to Matanuska’s 1,675 linear feet.

It’s not a correlative trade in comparing fuel consumption: Columbia uses 397 gallons per hour compared to Matanuska’s 234 gallons per hour.

It adds up quickly. Ship paperwork showed the Columbia took on 49,211 gallons of fuel in Bellingham on July 14. That fillup would come to about $142,700 based on the west coast price of wholesale fuel, based on the published average of $2.90 per gallon the week of July 21 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Had the Matanuska been running and burning its published 234 gallons per hour, the bill would have been $67,800 using the same calculation. Its weekly consumption was between 35,000 and 37,000 gallons per week, according to Hilliard, whose first job, before board service, is captain of the vessel.

Replacing the fleet isn’t to the exclusion of repairing ships, he said. But new ships will be much more reliable, which will in turn bring more people back to the system.

The board is working to define a basic level of service moving forward, “and there are a lot of steps to complete,” Hilliard said. “We aren’t done with the downhill ride yet, with crew shortages and other stuff. But there is an upward swing to things.”

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

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