By Larry Persily

There is more bad news for Skagway, which already has gone three weeks without state ferry service: Repairs to the Matanuska will take another month and there is no scheduled ferry run to town until March 6. 

There are “a lot of options being looked at” to fill what will become a seven-week gap in sailings for Southeast Alaska, said Sam Dapcevich, Alaska Marine Highway System spokesman. But, as of Wednesday, nothing was set, he said. 

The Matanuska, which has been tied up at Juneau’s Auke Bay terminal for repairs since engine problems sidelined the vessel on Jan. 25, likely will head to the Ketchikan shipyard on Monday for more extensive work, Dapcevich said. 

From there, if the repairs are completed, the ferry would head to Bellingham, Washington, on March 2 to resume its sailings, making its first stop in Skagway on March 6 as it goes back into scheduled service. 

The state had hoped to bring the Matanuska back into service this weekend. 

“New issues with the reduction-gear system have been identified and the manufacturer and contractor need the vessel to travel to the Ketchikan shipyard where it can be inspected in drydock to determine if further repairs are necessary,” according to an Alaska Department of Transportation statement issued Wednesday. “The Matanuska returned to service in November 2019 after a complete repower, and the repairs are covered under warranty.” 

Meanwhile, this summer’s ferry service to Skagway would be less than last year under the proposed schedule. 

The draft summer timetable shows just three sailings a week in and out of Skagway half the weeks May through September, alternating with four sailings a week the other half. 

And only two of those sailings each week would connect Skagway and Haines, something that concerns the borough’s Marine Highway Committee and Mayor Andrew Cremata. It would be less than half the scheduled Skagway-Haines service of last summer. 

In another concern, there would be no ferry service at all to Skagway on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Fridays, limiting midweek travel. 

The state released the draft 2020 schedule on Jan. 21, more than two months later than in past years. Until the schedule is set, summer travelers cannot book passenger or vehicle space. Public comments were due Feb. 3 and a final schedule could be available by the end of the month for travel starting May 1. 

The borough submitted comments, asking for more frequent service between Skagway and Haines. 

The lack of Skagway-Haines service would disrupt travel on the popular Golden Circle Route, which attracts visitors who make the drive one way between the two Southeast communities via the Haines and Klondike highways through the Yukon in conjunction with a ferry trip. 

More than 16,000 passengers and 7,500 vehicles traveled between Skagway and Haines in fiscal year 2018, the most recent numbers available. 

The diminished Golden Circle schedule concerns the Skagway Borough’s Marine Advisory Committee. “It’s revenue for the Marine Highway. It’s revenue for businesses. It’s revenue for the communities,” said Chair Jan Wrentmore.  

The draft schedule shows the Columbia on its traditional weekly run between Bellingham, Washington, and Southeast Alaska, and adds the Matanuska to the Bellingham route every other week, instead of keeping it on the shorter route between Southeast and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Skagway loses a voyage on those alternating weeks when the Matanuska makes the longer run to Bellingham. 

The reduction in Skagway-Haines service is also because the Tazlina, the newest ferry operating in the fleet, cannot make a Juneau-Haines-Skagway round trip in a single workday because the ship lacks sleeping quarters to accommodate the crew change required for the long day. Operating under that constraint, the ferry will make separate Juneau-Skagway and Juneau-Haines runs, without stopping in both Lynn Canal communities on the same voyage. 

The draft schedule shows seven of the ferry system’s nine working vessels would be in service this summer, with the 43-year-old Aurora out of service until a decision is made whether to repair the vessel, and the Hubbard, which was launched about a year ago, kept out of service to save money. 

State funding for the ferries was significantly reduced for the fiscal year that will end June 30. Faced with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal to slash state spending on the Marine Highway System by two-thirds, the Legislature negotiated to scale back that number and cut the annual state appropriation by about one-third, or about $44 million. 

The governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is essentially unchanged from this year. Lawmakers convened in Juneau on Jan. 21 to start work on the new budget. 

Dunleavy on Feb. 4 proposed a supplemental appropriation of $12 million for the current fiscal year to help pay for vessel repairs and other expenses. There was no announcement that the additional money, if approved by legislators, would produce any change in service levels.  

The continuing deterioration of ferry service was evident when engine problems forced cancellation of the Matanuska from Juneau to Skagway on Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, stranding passengers and vehicles. 

The state was unable to put another ferry into service during the loss of the Matanuska, as all of its other ships were in different stages of repair, maintenance or winter layup. 

Cancellation of the weekly Matanuska came at a bad time for Lynn Canal communities during a budget-cut-induced stretch of six weeks this winter with only one ferry a week until the Tazlina comes back in early March. 

For travelers stuck in Juneau, the ferry system allowed them to stay for free aboard the Matanuska. Meals were free, too. The unused bar area was converted to a kennel. 

Meanwhile, in his continued push to minimize state funding for the ferries, Dunleavy on Jan. 17 created the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Group, directing it to report by Sept. 30 with recommendations “on the future finances and service levels.” 

Dunleavy instructed the nine-member group to look at levels of service and size of the fleet, passenger and vehicle fees, labor contracts, contracting out services and how the ferry system should be governed. 

Cremata said he would push to get someone from Skagway on the work group. 

The governor’s work group is a follow-up to a $250,000 consultant’s report presented to the state Marine Transportation Advisory Board at its Jan. 15 meeting. 

That report, by Anchorage-based Northern Economics, determined that the only way to operate the ferry system on a target of $24 million in state funding — half of this year’s level — would be to increase fares 25 percent from 2018 levels, cut wages almost 9 percent from 2018, operate the ferries as much as possible as day boats only, look at stopping all state service to eight smaller communities including Pelican and Tenakee Springs in Southeast, and consider privatizing more work aboard the boats.