Responding to pressure from coastal communities, the state ferry system has pulled its newest vessel, the Tazlina, out of layup status and put it into service in northern Southeast Alaska through Jan. 19.
The move restores Skagway to three scheduled sailings a week for a total of six weeks, through Jan. 19, at which time service will drop back to one sailing a week from Skagway to Haines and Juneau until the second week of March.
The 280-foot-long Tazlina, with room for 300 passengers and about 50 cars and trucks, made its first call in Skagway on Nov. 22.
Bookings on the Tazlina are available at the state ferry website https://dot.alaska.gov/amhs/.
The Alaska Marine Highway System announced on Nov. 1 that the 42-year-old Aurora and 45-year-old LeConte needed additional repairs and maintenance this winter — the LeConte needing much more work than had been budgeted — and both vessels would be sidelined.
Work on the LeConte was estimated at $4 million above the $1.2 million already spent on annual overhaul work, the state reported Nov. 21.
The state Department of Transportation on Nov. 21 announced it would move ahead with repairs to the LeConte, planning to put the ship back into service May 15. Work on the Aurora will take longer, and the state provided no estimated return date for the ship.
“Engineers inspecting the ships determined that both will require extensive steel replacement. The Aurora will require 20 percent more steel to be replaced and locations are more challenging because of associated electric, plumbing and hydraulic lines,” the department said in a prepared statement. Repair work on the Aurora will be more expensive and will take longer.
“The LeConte repair work that remains includes replacement of steel on the ship’s hull. The LeConte’s engines have been rebuilt, and the Aurora will need replacement engines in the future,” the department reported.
The simultaneous loss of both the Aurora and LeConte, which had been expected to share the winter schedule in Southeast, cut deeply into service in the region. In addition to Skagway and Haines dropping to one sailing a week after Jan. 5, which will be provided by the Matanuska, Pelican and Angoon were left with no service at all.
Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata, along with other Southeast mayors, state legislators and business leaders, reached out to the state in the effort to get the Tazlina out of winter layup and back into service.
The ferry system is planning to add side doors later this winter to the Tazlina, which went into service this past summer, so that the ship can dock at ports that otherwise could not accommodate the ferry’s stern loading door. The state is still negotiating for the remodel work.
Even with the temporary addition of the Tazlina, Pelican is still completely cut off from ferry service for the duration of winter and Angoon has only two scheduled service dates in December.
The addition of the Tazlina to the schedule also restores service to Gustavus and Hoonah, too.
After the Tazlina leaves service in early January, Skagway will only have the Matanuska coming in on Saturdays until mid-March.
The governor and Legislature this year cut state funding for the ferries by about one-third, taking $43 million out of the system’s operating budget.
While Skagway has road access through Canada, a shortage of ferry service to Juneau restricts the ability of residents to reach the nearest hospital. Air service is available but is weather dependent and at least double the cost of an adult ferry ticket.