About two dozen people gathered in the Kodiak Public Library’s multipurpose room Wednesday night to hear about the state’s plan for replacing the aging ferry Tustumena.
David Larsen is a naval architect from Seattle who has been working on the design process since November. Even though the Tustumena underwent a significant amount of repairs last year, Larsen said it’s still a 50-year-old ship and that’s why the state is thinking about her replacement now, rather than later.
“As I’ve said you know we’re not going to have this new ship tomorrow, it’s 5, 6, 8 years down the road depending on the availability of funding. So it’s time to start thinking about it because it takes 3 years, 4 years to design and build a new ship.”
Larsen said he did the math on how many miles the Tustumena theoretically has from her half century of operation and estimates it’s around 3.5 million.
As for a replacement, Larsen presented preliminary designs for the ship, which will be 34 feet longer, 11 feet wider and 2 feet deeper than the Tustumena. He said it should be capable of carrying about 76 additional passengers, totaling about 250 people, and 16 additional vehicles.
Captain John Falvey, director of the Alaska Marine Highway System, was also at Wednesday’s meeting and said the ship will be smaller than the Kennicott so it can continue serving smaller ports.“Well what we’re trying to do with this boat, and what we did right from the very start of the entire project was to say we know how big the old Tustumena is – how big, and how much capacity, or in essence how physically big can we make the new Tustumena, and still get into all the ports we currently serve. And that’s it right there. We are pigeonholed right there. You start building a bigger ship and you’re not going to get into any of those ports, and that’s a problem. So we went as big and as much capacity as we could and still have a ship that can provide service to every one of those ports.”
Much of Wednesday’s meeting was spent answering questions and taking input on the new ship’s design. Some brought up the idea of making the ferry a drive-on, drive-off system – without an elevator – much like the ferries used in Southeast. Falvey said the issue is south central and Aleutian chain communities don’t have the necessary infrastructure to support that type of system.
“It’s the fixed docks with 30-foot tides down the chain and even in this port, and Homer, and Seldovia. What we are doing with this ship is building side doors on the back and on the stern so that if and when we ever do effect the floating dock arrangement change, this ship will accommodate that. We will be ready to accommodate that. Where as the Tustumena cannot.”
Falvey said the new ship is estimated to cost about $250 million. He said the marine highway system is continually looking to save dollars, which is why it will begin closing gift shops on ferries throughout the state. Likewise, Falvey said the new ferry won’t have a bar on board.
“What we’re looking at in general, and we’re in the process of affecting the change with gift shops. When you look at the bottom line of gift shops, they lose about $1 million a year. And we are in a very tight budget situation. And we’re trying to be very efficient in our operations. We made $3.5 million worth of cuts this year alone with many things that were not service related. And bars also lose a great deal of money and we’re just looking out ahead and trying to be prudent with operating costs. And that’s really the idea behind it.”
He said beer and wine might still be available in the cafeteria-style dining room aboard the new ferry. Some of the Tustumena’s beloved features will carry over to the new vessel – things like the upper deck solarium and small movie theater.
Kodiak’s meeting on Wednesday was one of several being held throughout south central Alaska this month to get public input on the new ferry’s design. The hope is to have it finalized by this time next year.
As for the Tustumena, Falvey said they aren’t quite sure what will happen to her when the new ship is built. He said she’s old, but still capable, and they expect her to be good for another six to eight years.