The Alaska Department of Transportation is asking anyone interested in taking ownership of the nearly 60-year-old Malaspina to speak up by March 7. The state has been spending about $75,000 a month to keep the unused ferry moored and insured at Ward Cove in Ketchikan for more than two years.
The ship has not carried passengers or vehicles since late 2019, and requires tens of millions of dollars of repairs, steel replacement work and new engines to go back into service, according to the Transportation Department.
“Holy crap, why don’t we sell it,” Big Lake Rep. Kevin McCabe asked of department officials at a Feb. 15 House Transportation Committee meeting. “Why are we hanging on to it?”
Katherine Keith, the department’s recently hired change management director, answered, “We have been preparing it for disposal.”
The department announced last Friday, three days after the committee hearing: “Due to recent interest from a U.S. buyer to purchase the Malaspina,” the state is soliciting letters of interest from any other potential buyers who might want to own the 408-foot-long ferry, capable of hauling 450 passengers and about 85 cars.
The state “is limiting this request to U.S. buyers that intend to retain the ship in Alaska.”
The state, however, is not giving prospective buyers much time to inspect the ship; letters of interest are due March 7.
“The state will consider all letters of interest … and determine whether or not to further pursue any of the proposals,” according to the department’s prepared statement.
A sale of the state ferry requires approval from the Federal Highway Administration, as the federal agency helped pay for work on the vessel over the years.
The state’s request for letters of interest asks for “a detailed description of your company’s intentions” for the vessel, where the ship would reside, and “documentation demonstrating that you are technically and financially capable of relocating, refurbishing, operating and maintaining the vessel.”
The notice also said, “Letters of interest that propose scuttling the vessel are not being considered at this time.”
Almost a year ago, a Transportation Department official told legislators the agency had considered turning the Malaspina into an artificial reef. Sinking the ship as a reef could cost between $500,000 and $1 million, but could make long-term financial sense, Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Rob Carpenter told a legislative committee last March.
The ship would have to be drained of all oils and other pollutants and stripped of all toxins before it could be sunk.
The department has been paring down the fleet to cut costs, getting rid of ships it no longer uses. The state about a year ago sold its two fast ferries, the Chenega and Fairweather, built at a combined cost of $68 million less than 20 years earlier, for just over $5 million to a Mediterranean-based catamaran operator.
The Spanish firm was the only bidder for the 235-foot-long vessels, which had been tied up at Ward Cove in Ketchikan the past few years, at an estimated holding cost of more than $1.1 million until they were sold.
Though the ships, each powered by four diesel engines, were faster than other boats in the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet, they burned through about 600 gallons of fuel an hour, according to the state — double the consumption rate of the Matanuska, which can carry more than twice as many passengers and vehicles as the smaller ferries.
Last summer, Gov. Mike Dunleavy offered to give away the Malaspina in a letter to the Philippines consul general in San Francisco, public radio network CoastAlaska reported.
“This vessel is surplus to our fleet, is in need of some repairs, but does have some service life left,” according to Dunleavy’s letter dated May 20 and obtained by the radio network in a public records request for the governor’s correspondence.
“We would be willing to provide the vessel to the Philippine government or to a private ferry company in the Philippines free of charge,” the letter said.
Nothing came from the governor’s offer, and the Malaspina continues to sit idle in Ketchikan.