The Alaska Marine Highway System celebrated the maiden voyage of its newest ferry nearly five years after the vessel was delivered. It comes as the troubled system seeks to fix its operational problems and renew its fleet with the help of the federal government.
The Marine Highway System is vital in the state where highway systems often do not interconnect cities. Ferries make up a large part of Alaska’s highway system, which covers 3,500 miles of coastline serving more than 30 communities stretching from Bellingham, Washington to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Range. Due to staff shortages and an aging fleet, parts of the service are suspended and capacity is limited.
The 280 foot ferry named hubbard (3,000 dwt) it was the first of two acclaimed shuttles to help with the system’s modernization when they were ordered nearly a decade ago. The concept of adding two new vessels to improve service was proposed 17 years ago. It would take four years to build the hubbard and her sister ship the tazlinawhich became the first state-built ferries for the system.
Designed to carry 300 passengers and up to approximately 50 cars, each of the ferries is operated by a crew of 14. The original concept was to use them for daytime service around the state capital of Juneau and along the Lynn Canal. A previous governor had proposed, along with the construction of the ferries, to extend the highway system to shorten the trip. As such, the ferries were built without sleeping accommodations for the passengers or crew. When the highway system was not expanded, the usefulness of the ferries was reduced due to a US Coast Guard rule limiting ferry crews to 12-hour work days and required rest periods. .
When the ferry was delivered at the end of 2018, the operators had decided that it needed to be redesigned to make up for the lack of accommodation. Finally, in 2021 the tender for the project was opened to add accommodation to the hubbard.
He hubbard recently completed a $15 million project adding crew accommodations to the vessel at Vigor Shipyard in Ketchikan. The project included the addition of eight single-person cabins on the bridge deck and eight two-person cabins on the upper deck. Additional improvements included the installation of a galley, utility and dining spaces on the upper deck, a new fan room on the bridge deck, and the extension of the existing port stair tower to the bridge deck. However, media reports note that the galley is too small to provide hot meals for large passenger loads, so the plan is to operate just a cafeteria with sandwiches and soup.
The US Coast Guard finally issued the vessel’s Certificate of Inspection and on May 23 it embarked its first passengers. Marine highway executives say the rebuild has expanded the vessel’s operating range and will provide additional flexibility and redundancy in the system. She operates six days a week between Juneau, Haines and Skagway.
“Add crew quarters to the hubbard It gives us flexibility in the AMHS fleet, allowing the ship to sail to more ports when needed,” Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy said. “Revitalizing the fleet is important to the long-term health of Marine Highway and the communities it serves.”
The system currently has nine vessels, but only six are in service. He hubbardThe sister ship of was recently decommissioned with a plan to also add accommodation to expand her capabilities. The oldest ship in the fleet, the matanuska it is 60 years old and inactive and will likely never be in service again as it requires extensive steel work. Another ship, the tustumenait remains in service at age 59 with planning underway for its replacement possibly to enter service in 2027 or 2028.
The largest portion of the US Department of Transportation’s annual grants for ferry systems, totaling nearly $286 million, was awarded this year to the state of Alaska, which will be invested in the Alaska Marine Highway. The award includes $72 million to modernize four Alaska Marine Highway System vessels to ensure reliable service by improving their state of repair. An additional $68 million is dedicated to replace the tustumenaand an additional $46 million is also provided to build an electric ferry.
Money is also being provided to Alaska for port system infrastructure and operations. Critics point out that while they have finally placed the hubbard in service and providing expanded capacities on a major southeastern route, piers in several communities still need to be upgraded to accommodate the larger hubbard and her sister ship.