By Larry Persily 

While Alaska communities wait for the governor to decide on any vetoes to the state operating budget, which could include deeper cuts to the ferry system, officials already have decided to take the largest ferry, the Columbia, out of service for the entire fall and winter.

In an effort to save money, the 45-year-old Columbia, with capacity for about 500 passengers, will not sail past Sept. 4, an Alaska Marine Highway System official confirmed to CoastAlaska public radio this week.

The Columbia’s return to service next year is dependent on state funding and a quarter-million-dollar consultant’s report “to identify potential reductions of the state’s financial obligation” for the ferry system. The first draft of the report, by an Anchorage-based economics firm, is due by Aug. 1. The final report is due by Oct. 15.

Though he never talked about deep cuts to state funding for the ferry system during his winning gubernatorial campaign last year, soon after talking office Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed almost a 70 percent reduction in state money for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Legislature scaled that back to about a 30 percent cut.

The governor is expected to decide before July 1 whether to accept the Legislature’s version of the budget or use his veto power to reduce the numbers.

Until the budget is set and ferry system management prepares a fall/winter schedule, travelers cannot book reservations past Sept. 30. “Once the budget is completed, the Alaska Marine Highway System will analyze funding and develop a more sustainable operating plan,” system spokeswoman Aurah Landau said in a June 12 email.

Marine highway officials “anticipate that the 2019-2020 fall/winter schedule will be available for reservations in mid-summer,” Landau said.

The ferry system has been scaling back its fleet and its service in recent years. Last year, it sold the Taku, one of the system’s original three ferries, for scrap. The Taku, which started service in 1963, had been mothballed since 2015 due to its age and budget cuts.

The system’s two all-aluminum fast ferries, the Fairweather and Chenega, each about 15 years old, have been taken out of service and are up for sale. The $36 million vessels consumed a lot of fuel to reach their cruising speed of about 32 knots.