State contracts for private ferry operator ‘as needed’

By Larry Persily
Wrangell Sentinel reporter

The Alaska Department of Transportation is contracting with Allen Marine to run one of its vessels “as needed” between Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg this winter, though no runs are scheduled and any operations likely would depend on whether the state ferry Matanuska finally comes out of winter overhaul as now expected on Jan. 31.

Delays caused by extensive repair work to the 58-year-old ferry forced the Alaska Marine Highway System to cancel several sailings between the three communities in December and January.

The Matanuska’s first port calls at Wrangell and Petersburg are scheduled to resume Feb. 4, on a northbound voyage from Bellingham, Washington, with the ship then returning to its regular weekly northbound and southbound service.

The state would pay Sitka-based Allen Marine a fixed price of $11,499 per run for any fill-in service between the three communities. The company is required to use a vessel at least 60 feet long, with a capacity of at least 80 passengers. The contract does not provide for carrying any vehicles.

“It will be on a case-by-case basis depending upon community needs,” Sam Dapcevich, Department of Transportation spokesman, said by email last week.

“‘As needed’” service could also be used if the Matanuska is further delayed, depending on the length of the delay,” he said Tuesday.

The contract for potential fill-in service in Southern Southeast is among several agreements negotiated between the state and private vessel operators to cover for large gaps in ferry service to Southeast communities this winter.

The department went through a hurried process to solicit bids and select contractors, with the bid notice issued New Year’s Eve, and price quotes due seven days later.

The contracts extend through March, with renewal options for the state to call on the private operators January through March of 2023 and 2024.

In addition to the loss of the Matanuska for extensive repairs, other state ferries headed into the shipyard this month for their annual winter maintenance, leaving a shortage of operating vessels to serve coastal communities. The state’s two newest ferries have been in money-saving layup status, though the ferry system is looking at putting the Tazlina into service next month — if it is needed, and if it can assemble a crew.

The first trip between Juneau, Hoonah and Pelican under a separate contract with Allen Marine, which uses its vessels in the summer for whale-watching tours, was scheduled for Wednesday this week as the first of three such runs under the agreement through March.

The state will pay $7,999 per voyage.

Separate contracts with Goldbelt, the village Native corporation for Juneau, which also operates summer sightseeing tours, cover service between Juneau, Hoonah and Gustavus, starting Jan. 26, at a cost of $5,390 per voyage, and a run between Juneau, Tenakee and Angoon, starting Jan. 27, at a cost of $6,860 per sailing.

Although the private operators will run the vessels, the Alaska Marine Highway System will handle all ticket sales and keep the proceeds.

Goldbelt also will provide service between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, at a cost to the state of $6,305 per sailing. Runs already are scheduled for Jan. 24 and 29 out of Juneau, with sailings in February dependent on need, the state said.