Reversing the decade-long planning and roll out of the two Alaska Class ferries, the Walker Administration plans a multi-million dollar retrofit that will add crew quarters and double the number of state workers needed to run the ferries.
The Alaska Class ferries were built in Ketchikan, the first ferries to be built in Alaska. It took years of planning and design to get the right ferry configuration that would be able to do shorter runs, and cut down the cost of running the ferries.
Crew could return to their own homes at night, or could be put up in hotels, if they had to stay the night in a community due to weather or maintenance. Hotels are cheaper alternatives than state-owned and run crew quarters. Without the need for crew quarters, the ships could also eliminate full-service galleys, passenger cabins, and other amenities that require workers to maintain ferries. Each ferry could run with a crew of just nine, and by using scheduling more efficiently, stay within the 12-hour shift limit placed on the vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Parnell Administration returned federal dollars and paid for the construction of the ferries with state funds alone, so that Ketchikan would have a shot winning the bids for building the two ferries, thus starting a new industry in Ketchikan.
The Tazlina and the Hubbard were built primarily for northern Lynn Canal day runs, between Juneau, Haines, Skagway and Hoonah. They were part of the Juneau Access project. To make the whole system work better, the 49-mile road would be extended to a new ferry terminal. They could also be used for other short runs around Southeast Alaska.
The Tazlina was completed and christened earlier this year.
But elections have consequences. The Walker Administration owes its existence to the support of the major labor unions that supported him in 2014 and support him today. Union workers fly in from Bellingham and as far away as Chile, South America, to take the lucrative jobs, where they are paid to sleep when they are not on duty. Some workers maintain Alaska post office boxes so they can get the Alaska pay differential, which is worth several dollars an hour.
Walker killed the 49-mile road project, which was paid for with already-assigned federal dollars. Now, his Department of Transportation is planning to retrofit the two Alaska Class ferries for a cost of about $14 million each, adding crew quarters. To retrofit the Tazlina, it will have to be back in Ketchikan for another nine months.
Come November, the next governor will have the opportunity to decide if this is a long-term operating budget cost-driver, and whether to proceed with the retrofit or restart the Juneau Access Project.