AMHS struggles with budget cuts, aging fleet

Alaska residents encouraged to speak out on value of ferry system

Ongoing repairs needed for the M/V Columbia, the flagship vessel of the Alaska Marine Highway System for over 36 years, will require additional time, with a return to service now slated for July 26, AMHS officials said June 13.

The Columbia went in for repairs at Vigor Shipyard in Portland, Ore. last September after a suspected propeller strike with an unknown object. Parts needed for the system required fabrication in Germany and took several months to manufacture, AMHS officials said.

The propeller repairs were made and the ferry proceeded to sea trails, where the ferry experienced another mechanical failure related to the newly installed propeller system.

Technicians are now trying to diagnose the new failure and develop a repair plan. Once those repairs are made, the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping must certify the vessel as safe to operate.

AMHS officials said passengers who will be impacted by the delayed in return of the Columbia are being notified.  The M/V Malaspina is currently running in the Columbia’s place and will continue until the Columbia is back in service. As the Malaspina is a smaller vessel, some passengers will not get cabins they reserved and some vehicle reservations will be cancelled.

Anyone who had made reservations for the Columbia is advised to call AMHS at 1-907-465-3941 or 1-800-642-0066, or check online for updates at http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/pubs/

In a related matter, AMHS officials said this past week that the ferry system is at a critical juncture, and state residents to provide feedback about the value of the state’s marine highway system, by joining a project mailing list at www.amhsreform.com

After more than 50 years of providing transportation services for people and cargo in coastal communities the service has steadily declined due to budget reductions and an aging fleet.

Gov. Bill Walker last year signed a memorandum of understanding with the Southeast Conference, launching the AMHS Reform Initiative, to identify structural changes to improve the viability of the ferry system. Dennis Watson chairs the 12-member Reform Project Committee appointed.

“It is imperative we recreate the system with the input and support of Alaska residents,” said Watson.

Phase one of the reform initiative examined governance models used by other ferry systems to determine what was best suited to the state’s unique transportation situation. Phase two examines the structure and benefits of a public corporation form of governance, potential opportunities for enhancing system revenue, how to better align management and labor, and control expenses. The reform project lead is Elliot Bay Design Group, a naval architecture, marine engineering and electrical engineering firm with offices in Seattle, New Orleans and Ketchikan, and clients worldwide.