‘…Very good chance of becoming the pilot project’

By Melinda Munson

Skagway’s delegation to Southeast Conference in Haines this September had to find alternate transportation when their state ferry was cancelled. Ironically, they were attending to present “Electric Ferry Pilot Project,” Skagway’s bid to operate an electric ferry between Skagway, Haines and possibly Juneau.

According to Mayor Andrew Cremata, Skagway is uniquely positioned for the pilot program due to its popularity with tourists, short route (14.5 miles between Haines and Skagway), an abundance of hydropower and ten years worth of studies.

And the timing could be perfect. Sen. Lisa Murkowski helped advance a $1 trillion infrastructure bill through the Senate, which includes $250 million in funding for an “electric or low-emitting ferry pilot program.” The legislation is now being contested in the House.

“If the bill passes Congress, Skagway could receive tens of millions of dollars toward a pilot project, which would start with engineering a plan that the community could then approve by vote,” Cremata said.

After years of interrupted service due to broken ferries and anemic winter schedules, Skagway seeks to become less reliant on the Alaska Marine Highway, while preserving its environment.

The ad hoc Marine Highway Committee, formed in 2012, is composed of Chair Jan Wrentmore, Dennis Bousson and Mike Korsmo. 

Skagway leaders have spoken with Elliott Bay Design Group about two ferry concepts that could operate in the Upper Lynn Canal.

Option one is an all-electric model which could be built in Sitka. It would be under 100 tons and around 120 feet long. It would operate between Skagway and Haines, only in the summer months when the seas are calmer, and would require new dock infrastructure in both towns. The vessel could carry 100 passengers, 15 standard cars and would have one captain and two crew members. It has an estimated cost of $8 million.

According to Wrentmore, the electric ferry could make two to three roundtrips between Haines and Skagway each day they operate. 

Less is known about option two, the more expensive, ambitious choice. The second option is a hybrid model that could travel to Juneau year-round with trips to Haines in the summer. The existing dock infrastructure in both Skagway and Haines would be compatible with the hybrid model.

“The Skagway/Haines route is an essential link in the Golden Circle Tour connecting our communities with the Yukon and points beyond,” Wrentmore wrote in a letter to the assembly. 

As independent travel increases, so does the need for dependable ferry service, she added.

Wrentmore said the Marine Highway Committee is focused on “how to meet Skagway’s needs.” The group started out trying to improve the state ferry system for Skagway’s residents and visitors, but ended up imagining a more autonomous plan that could serve a town isolated by an ocean, international border and a broken infrastructure system.

Cremata was pleased with the presentation and the trip to Haines, despite the transportation bungle.

“Sen. Murkowski was there. She mentioned Skagway by name multiple times and said that we are leading the way when it comes to electric ferries, and since she is one of the proponents of the infrastructure bill, I take that to mean we have a very good chance of becoming the pilot project,” he said.