Federal government stalling construction of new Alaska ferry

Alaska Marine Highway Ferry

JUNEAU — The design and funding for a new Alaska ferry are ready to go, but the federal government is not.

Alaska Department of Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken Friday warned members of the state Marine Transportation Advisory Board that an effort to build a new oceangoing ferry may run into trouble with the federal government.

Under federal law, “all steel or iron products that are permanently incorporated in a Federal-aid highway construction project” must be made in a “domestic manufacturing process.”

That law holds true even if no one in the United States builds a particular part.

The only way to get around the law is to request a waiver from the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, and President Trump has yet to appoint one.

Obtaining a waiver requires extensive jurisdiction and a thorough vetting process.

“The procurement guidelines are really, really strict,” said Alaska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Aurah Landau. “It’s not an easy and quick process to do that.”

The process can take weeks or months, the Juneau Empire reports (http://bit.ly/2vC8FOo).

Since Trump became president, it is unclear if the federal government has approved a single waiver anywhere in the United States.

It is unclear whether that lack of waivers is linked with Trump’s repeated desire to encourage American manufacturing.

“FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) has not granted a waiver, as far as I know, since the new administration,” Luiken told the advisory board. “Ultimately, it is an issue we have to get through before we put out a solicitation (for construction).”

The new oceangoing ferry is intended to replace the Tustumena, which was built in 1964 to serve Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians. For the second time in the past decade, Tustumena has been put out of service for an entire summer after drydock workers discovered extensive amounts of wasted steel that requires replacement.

The Tustumena is expected to return to service later this year, but it is unknown how long the state can keep it operating. Alaska Legislature this year appropriated money from the state vessel replacement fund for a new Tustumena. The federal government will pick up 90 percent of the cost, and the state will pay the rest.

That comes with a Buy American Act requirement, which is a problem.

“Just like American cars, you don’t build ships in America with all American components,” Luiken said.

Building the new Tustumena is estimated right now to require 75 waivers — down tremendously from the 1,250 waivers that were originally planned.

Navigation equipment might come from Norway, engines from Germany and cabling from Great Britain.

The state currently expects to solicit construction bids in midwinter and, if all goes as planned, anticipates a new ship will hit the water within four and a half years.