By Rich Moniak
According to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed this week by the U.S. Senate includes “$250 million for an electric or low-emitting ferry pilot program, with at least one pilot to be conducted” in Alaska. And because they’ve done their homework, you can bet she expects one pilot grant to be awarded to the Municipality of Skagway.
Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration seems to be scratching its head to figure out how they can cash in on that and the rest of the bill.
An electric-powered ferry isn’t a farfetched “green new deal” idea. There’s some already in service in Europe. But like electric cars, their travel range without refueling is limited.
In March, the largest electric ferry yet to be built began serving a 6-mile crossing on Norway’s busiest ferry route. Two years before that, they built one with a 25-mile range.
A retrofit project in Toronto to convert an existing ferry to all electric is in its final phase. It will become Canada’s first operational electric ferry once it begins doing its tenth-of-a-mile run across a lake.
At 14.5 miles, the distance between Skagway to Haines is a perfect fit.
In a letter Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata sent to Murkowski in April, he indicated they’d already obtained a “high-level concept” design that “would be an innovative pilot project for renewably-powered marine transportation.”
Attached were preliminary descriptions of the all-electric vessel’s performance characteristics, propulsion system and shore power requirements. It was prepared by the Elliot Bay Design Group in Seattle. The fact sheet states their “shuttle plan will reduce the burden on the state budget by eliminating one route during the busy summer season” while freeing up “other AMHS vessels to serve other communities in the region.”
Now, one would expect Randy Ruaro, Dunleavy’s chief of staff, to be fully briefed about the pilot project Murkowski referred to before he talked to reporters about the infrastructure bill.
“I think there is a very significant amount coming to Alaska for its ferries” Ruaro said about the ferry portion of the bill, adding “we’re already making plans on our end on how to best get the highest and best use of the funds for the system.”
He didn’t mention anything about electric ferries until he was asked about the current status of plans to replace the Tustumena. He said the design is almost complete, but that the electric ferry section in the bill “caught our attention … It may be possible to use some of the funds that are appropriated through this program for a low emissions ferry that could tie into the design of the Tustumena.”
When the reporter mentioned the Skagway proposal and questioned Ruaro’s suggestion that electric ferries could serve some of the Tustumena’s long distance routes, he only spoke of being unsure if “that type of a ferry would work for a long-range run.”
It’s not as if Skagway had been keeping their work secret. It was a significant part of a presentation they made last summer to the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group. They stated that to own and operate the vessel themselves, they’re seeking “state and federal support, particularly for start-up and vessel acquisition.”
“We believe the secret to success lies in the concept of strong community partnerships with AMHS” Cremata wrote in a follow-up letter that again highlighted the electric ferry proposal and its potential benefits to the state. A copy of that was sent to DOT Commissioner John MacKinnon.
But judging by Ruaro’s statements, the Dunleavy administration isn’t a partner on their electric ferry vision.
What Murkowski has done, as she said on the Senate floor, is ask Congress to pass a bill to support our ferry system because it’s “absolutely essential to local economic development, to quality of life, to community wellbeing.” And told them the “folks in Skagway or Haines are looking at” electric ferries “with great interest because they view that as a real opportunity.”
But rather than be that kind of champion defender for rural ferry service in Alaska, Dunleavy has given us nothing but lip service about its essential purpose. Because the only opportunity he’s interested in is seeing how much of the system’s budget he can get away with cutting.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.