Fair thee well, Fairweather ferries - Must Read Alaska
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Sunday, November 17, 2019
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Fair thee well, Fairweather ferries

By ART CHANCE
SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR

Breathless coverage about the Department of Transportation’s plan to sell off the two Fairweather Class fast ferries reminds me of how we acquired these two ill-fated ferries in the first place.

If you’re a lefty/greenie, it is a tragedy because they were a lefty/greenie wet dream, an antidote to the push for a Juneau road.

I was there when the Tony Knowles Administration threw an arbitration and gave the Marine Engineers union (MEBA) a quarter million bucks, which Joe Geldhof used for walking-around money to narrowly defeat the initiative to build a Juneau road.

After I became director of labor relations in the Murkowski Administration I found the MEBA positions that the criminals at DOT had hidden in doubled up Position Control Numbers.

Art Chance

If I were in charge, I’d reopen a wing in Palmer Correctional Center just for DOT employees. One of my formative experiences with the State was on sunny Fridays watching a Range 20 procurement officer for the AMHS sail his 40-foot trawler majestically down Gastineau Channel on his way to Taku Harbor.  I spent most of my career as a range 20-something in State government with a range 20-something wife. Sorry, you don’t have 40-foot boats even on two range 20-something salaries.

I inherited the fast boats when I became head of State labor relations in early 2003. We had a couple hundred million bucks worth of boats coming in the spring of 2003 and nobody at DOT or the Alaska Marine Highway System had a clue how we were going to run them.

We kept the Knowles Administration’s parasites Bob Doll and George Capacci on the payroll through April so they could get another year of PERS credit and maybe help us with planning how we were going to run these white elephants. They were both useless and I finally used labor relations money to hire a Canadian consultant to give us some clue how you ran a high-speed craft code vessel under U.S. maritime and labor laws.

The only beef I have with Gov. Frank Murkowski is that he was loyal to old friends even when he shouldn’t have been. He was buddies with lobbyist Don Kubley’s dad in their Ketchikan days, and Donnie was lobbying for the licensed marine unions; he could get to the governor when nobody else could.

I don’t think he ever got to the governor without the commissioner of Administration or me in the room, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

The only upset I ever had with Murkowski and his Chief of Staff Jim Clark was when I made a deal to go to Seattle to meet with the licensed unions to see if we could make a deal.  I told them I’d give them 20 percent if they’d let me write the work rules.  They remembered the 20 percent, but forgot the part about my writing the work rules; we argued about that a lot.

The unions joined the Greenies in support of the fast boats, but once the fast boats came on line, they wanted nothing to do with them. The fast boats were meant to run like airplanes; the unions wanted to run them like 19th Century sailing vessels.

We argued with the unions, we tied up the boats, and we never could get a deal with them that didn’t risk shutting down the whole system.  Somewhere in this computer is an email I wrote to Jim Clark when I was facing meeting with the marine unions the next morning. I had no airspeed, altitude, or ideas. I told Jim that the price of oil had been over $50 for a month or so, so why didn’t we just throw some money at the “fine gentlemen” and get off the front page of every paper in coastal Alaska. Jim told me not to ask, but if I could get a deal, do it.

We never got a deal with the marine unions that would allow economic operation of the fast boats.   The Fairweather Class was too small for summer traffic in Northern Lynn Canal, so it required a traditional vessel on the route as well.  Neither ran full and both lost money.  There were routes that might have been successful, Sitka to Juneau might have worked and some of the Southern Southeast routes might have worked.  But fundamentally, they were just an ideological proposition that was never intended to solve a transportation problem.   I wager we’ll give them away on eBay.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. 

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Addendum: Actually, I like them; you can’t call them pretty but they’re elegant pieces of marine architecture. I went on M/V Fairweather’s introductory VIP voyage up Lynn Canal and thought she was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Were I the sort of person who could afford a $100 Million toy, I’d have one, and a couple hundred of my close personal friends and I could sail Alaskan waters at 40 knots. They’re elegant vessels; they just don’t really have a purpose other than political expediency in Alaska.

  • Wow! Who knew?

    • Joe, I don’t know if you knew, but I did. You might have noticed I didn’t represent the State in that one. DOT just hid the MEBA employees; Doug didn’t know either.

  • Took the Chenega from Whittier to Valdez while campaigning in 2014. It was a great ride! There must be enough routes like that for at least one of them. Oh, and re-open the lounges and privatize them. They’ll do just fine.

    • They’re grossly over-manned for economical operation.

    • Of course the ferries “do just fine” if you merely want to ride on a boat, enjoy the views, and have warm and fuzzy feelings. If, on the other hand, you want economically feasible transportation which doesn’t require a 60-70% government subsidy, then the ferries do not “do just fine.”

      • I meant the bars will do just fine.

        • They might well “do just fine” in the hands of a private concessionaire; they’ll never do fine in the hands of the AMHS. I was involved in a few attempts to discipline bar employees over cash management and inventory issues; the AMHS didn’t even have the most rudimentary systems in place to know how much money and inventory it was supposed to have.

  • They always where overstaffed and overaid

  • I negotiated labor contracts in the 1990s with MEBA-D2. The union was run with the iron fist rule of Ray McKay. He died in 1993. His sons then took over the union. They went to jail for misusing union pension funds for personal reasons.

  • so your the reason we have an inappropriate ferry for prince william sound that can’t run in the foul weather. thanks for all the cancellations through the years. were you also responsible for coming to cordova and lying to us to say that the ferry would be staffed by locals?
    we need a ferry that can run in foul weather with a large vehicle deck and way less passenger space. there are very few walk ons on any ferry leg in prince william sound. none of the ferries designed seem to consider the real needs for riders.

    • I’m not usually nice to people with your attitude, but this is Suzanne’s blog, and she’s nice, so we won’t discus your ancestry and sexual proclivities. I didn’t have anything to do with buying those stupid fast boats. That was done by a communist, excuse me, Democrat Administration and their greenie, lefty, and union friends. I’m willing to bet that you voted for Knowles. I didn’t have anything to do with sending Chenega to PWS. I had to listen to your left wing rag newspaper screech about how they wanted fast boat service when even the communists, excuse me, Democrats hadn’t thought to put them in PWS. Oh, did you notice, genius, that I know the difference between your and you’re.

      Since you’re likely a communist, excuse me, Democrat, you may have some union friends who can explain to you how you get a job, and especially a regular job on AMHS vessels. From what I know of Cordova, finding somebody who could pee in a bottle and get a MMC and a TWIC card would be a challenge; so there goes your local hire.

      What you’re asking for, genius, is a private, State operated freight line for your silly little burg; it simply isn’t right for the State to provide subsidized competition to the private carriers. The AMHS is a highway; it will haul your sorry butt to Valdez or Whittier, bring your personal vehicle, and deposit you on the road system. That is what it is supposed to do.

      What you really need to do is stop Cordova’s stupid opposition to turning the old CR&NW right of way into a road and you can drive your butt out of Cordova and save the State a lot of money.

  • By Chance could the ferries now be called half fast ferries.

  • Banzai!

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