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Matanuska repair delays could mean longer ferry service gaps in upper Lynn Canal

Rashah McChesney/KTOO
he Matanuska docked on Friday, February 7, 2020 at the Auke Bay ferry terminal in Juneau, Alaska. The ship is headed to Ketchikan for repairs. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Alaska Marine Highway System has announced further delays for the lone ferry scheduled to serve the upper Lynn Canal this winter. This latest delay could mean nearly a month-long service gap for Skagway.

The Alaska Marine Highway System announced that the Matanuska will need more time in the shipyard to repair steelwork. Their new target date to get it up and running again is January 31. This will leave Skagway without service from January 8 until February 5. Haines will be served by the Kennicott on January 12, but that ship won’t call on Skagway.

On December 9, the mayors of both Skagway and Haines wrote a letter to the General Manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, Captain John Falvey. After two weeks with no response, on December 22 they sent another.

“All residents in the upper Lynn Canal could see this coming. And I have no idea why we’re being ignored, said Haines Mayor Douglas Olerud. “It’s kind of crickets coming from the marine highway system. So we’ll keep pounding on that door, we’ll keep asking questions. But I don’t know when they’re going to actually start listening to us.”

Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata echoed those frustrations.

“This is what we need to be able to function as a community during the winter months. And if the goal here is to disintegrate our entire community during the winter months, after we’ve survived the pandemic, well then, doing a great job,” said Cremata.

Both mayors agreed that residents of the upper Lynn Canal cannot count on flights to Juneau during the winter months due to weather. Both pointed out that the ferry system is supposed to be the reliable alternative. However, over the last half a decade, it has become increasingly unreliable.

The Alaska Department of Transportation oversees the Marine Highway system, and spokesperson Shannon McCarthy said they are considering multiple options to shorten service gaps this winter. That includes bringing the three-year-old, $60 million Tazlina back into service sometime near the end of January or extending the LeConte’s service for a little while.

“But they have to be mindful about when they extend then that pushes the LeConte’s return to the shipyard, the overhaul, that pushes that back. And what we don’t want is to be in a situation where if we did find, you know, something that had to be fixed, we don’t want to push that into the spring or heaven forbid the summer schedule,” said McCarthy.

She went on to say that the AMHS does schedule their ships to be overhauled and repaired during the winter months on purpose.

“We do try to schedule the overhauls when it’s least impactful to the communities. And, you know, that does tend to be more impactful to communities when we get into, you know, spring or summer schedules,” said McCarthy.

Olerud says it’s the lack of reliable wintertime ferry service that’s impacting upper Lynn Canal communities the hardest, and it’s forcing people to move away permanently.

“It’s already happened. And I’m sure it’s gonna continue to happen until that aspect gets fixed. Anybody that has medical issues trying to get out in those months, (it’s) not an option, with no ferry system trying to get to treatments and checkups in Juneau, Anchorage, Seattle. The extra cost and that is huge to our communities,” said Olerud.

He also said that his community is trying to bolster wintertime tourism, but with no reliable ferry system to get people to Haines in the winter, he sees the more viable option is to fly in and out of Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Though he believes that could hurt businesses in Juneau that cater to wintertime travelers.

Meanwhile, Cremata continues to press on management to improve service. But the AMHS responds by saying how difficult it is to find crew, produce certifications, and how challenging it is to keep older ships in service.

“I think most people in Skagway, Alaska, and Haines Alaska, are tired of hearing why things can’t happen. These are people that get paid a good wage, good salaries to run the marine highway and to work within the marine highway. There have to be solutions,” said Cremata.

For now, the Department of Transportation says it should have a decision made within a couple of weeks as to when marine highway service will return to Haines and Skagway in 2022.