Skagway ferry service during dock repair hinges on Coast Guard waiver

Skagway borough officials wondered aloud what was happening with the planned Skagway ferry dock refurbishment, at a meeting last week. The project could cut off local ferry service for months. Whether Skagway retains any service during the dock project depends on a Coast Guard waiver the Alaska Marine Highway hopes to acquire. Earlier this year, the Department of Transportation said if the ferry dock project were to happen this winter, then it would probably mean a two- to three-month disruption in service for Skagway. But, they said if the project were delayed until next winter, the Kennicott ferry might be able to offer some limited service using one of Skagway’s other docks. The MATANUSKA usually provides winter ferry service to Skagway, but that vessel is due for engine replacement next year, taking the boat out of service for most of the fall and winter of 2017 That’s where the KENNICOTT might come in. It has to do with a certification that only some ferries hold, called the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS, certification. SOLAS is required for vessels that run in international waters. The MATANUSKA has it, because its route includes Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The Kennicott is also SOLAS-approved. Swapping in the KENNICOTT would be good for Skagway. Sailings would be less frequent, but they would accommodate both passengers and vehicles.DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow says that’s because the ship is adaptable to different kinds of dock.“Because it has the ability to service docks that don’t have floating ramps,” Woodrow said. “It can go to fixed docks where it uses this vehicle elevator lift to allow cars to go on and off the ferry.”Woodrow’s department doesn’t want to use the Kennicott as the Matanuska’s replacement, he said. It’s an expensive ship to run on a low-volume route. “It’s a larger ship than we need in Southeast especially on the Price Rupert run in the winter time.”The DOT would prefer to run the smaller, cheaper Malaspina while the Matanuska is out of commission, but there’s just one problem: The Malaspina doesn’t have a SOLAS certification because it usually sails the Bellingham, Washington, to Southeast route.DOT applied for a waiver with the Coast Guard to allow the Malaspina to operate without the certification on a short-term basis. Woodrow isn’t sure when they’ll get an answer from the Coast Guard. “We think that we will be able to receive that waiver especially since it’s just for a specific window,” he said. “But it’ really something that’s in the air and we’re waiting to hear back from the Coast Guard.” The service that might be available to Skagway hinges on the waiver. The interestes of DOT and Skagway are conflicted: It would be better for DOT to get the waiver and not have to use the Kennicott; It would better for Skagway if the waiver were denied, the project was put off until 2017, and the Kennicott sailed the Lynn Canal. If the MALASPINA replaced the MATANUSKA instead, Skagway could lose ferry service for a few months. DOT is looking into other possibilities, Woodrow said. “To see if there is a way, at the very minimum, to provide passenger-only service. A determination on that has not been made.” Without ferries, Skagway residents would lose their most reliable form of transportation out of town.Flights from small airlines are often grounded because of inclement winter weather. Driving out of Skagway is contingent on the US-Canada border being open and road conditions, which are also at the mercy of winter weather. Source: KTOO public media

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