Story last updated at 8/12/2009 - 1:16 pm
Ferry service to several northern Southeast communities this fall will be provided by Allen Marine Tours, a unique use of a private contractor to serve public transportation needs. The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry LeConte will go out of service for a regular overhaul in September and October.
Sitka-based Allen Marine will cover the LeConte's Northern Panhandle Village Route, said Chuck VanKirk, operations manager for AMHS. Passengers and vehicles will ride on separate vessels, he said.
That ferry route brings people from the communities of Hoonah, Angoon, Tenakee Springs and occasionally Pelican to the regional hub communities of Juneau and Sitka.
The temporary service is expected to be offered twice a week to most communities, with monthly service to Pelican.
Ferry service is critical to some communities, especially Angoon, which recently lost its barge service and has only seaplane service, said Maxine Thompson, an Angoon businesswoman who also sits on the Marine Transportation Advisory Board.
"This is our only avenue for fresh produce; it's too expensive to fly anything in," she said.
"It's the only option for our handicapped people," she added. "If they're wheelchair-bound, they can't get in and out of a seaplane."
The state will have other vessels in winter lay-up, but VanKirk said the state had no choice but to contract out the service.
"The LeConte serves ports that our other vessels cannot physically go into," he said.
The 235-foot LeConte displaces 2,132 tons. The fleet's 418-foot flagship, the Columbia, displaces 7,683 tons.
Ferry unions aren't objecting to the two-month use of Allen Marine. Darryl Tseu of the Inland Boatmen's Union of the Pacific said his union, one of three representing ferry workers, agrees to contracting when it is necessary to ensure the communities are served, as long as it can be done safely.
"We've agreed to contracting out if (AMHS) can't provide the service," he said.
Tseu questioned the dependability of the small Allen Marine vessels in Icy Strait and in bad weather, however.
"We want to make sure we do have service, but then again we want to make sure they're safe and reliable," he said.
Allen Marine spokesman Jamey Cagle said the two company vessels providing the service, the St. Aquilina for passengers and the Glacier for freight, are capable of handling the trips. The St. Aquilina is 87 feet long, and displaces 94 tons; the Glacier is 140 feet long and displaces 98 tons.
"I'm confident in the ability of these vessels to provide good, safe service," he said.
Thompson said she hoped weather wouldn't be a problem, given the time of year.
"Those Allen Marine boats, they don't do very well in the weather," she said. "We usually don't get bad weather before Halloween. Usually."
VanKirk said the bids sought by the ferry system included multiple options, and he was not able to say immediately what the cost would be. He also said he was unsure whether the Allen Marine service would cost more or less than AMHS service.
The ferry system contracted out replacement service for the LeConte in 2004 after it ran onto a reef in Peril Strait. AMHS failed to obtain permission from the unions, however, which won settlements totaling nearly half a million dollars from a labor arbitrator.
VanKirk said a notice of intent to award the contract to Allen Marine has been issued, with award of the contract expected soon.