Skagway residents are facing a two-and-a-half month disruption in Alaska Marine Highway ferry service sometime in the next year and a half. The municipality held a meeting last week to hear from residents about what they think the best timing would be for the looming closure of the ferry dock.
The Alaska Department of Transportation is planning to refurbish the dock. The question now is when? DOT gave Skagway residents three timing options to consider: Summer of 2017, Fall of 2017, or Spring of 2018.
“Summer would be completely undoable, just not even worth considering,” said Nola Lamken.
She was one of a few residents who said a ferry service interruption in the summer would cause the most disruption for business owners, tourists, and summer employees.
The consensus among the residents at Wednesday’s meeting was that fall or winter is the best option. Gary Hanson is on the local marine highway ad hoc committee.
“We would think that the best time to do this would be around mid-October to I guess mid-January for your three months,” Hanson said. “We figured that it was more important to have vehicle service as the tourism season ended in September and also as it gears up again in March.”
DOT Deputy Commissioner Mike Neussl said the only reason he thought summer or spring might be viable options is because flights in and out of Skagway tend to be more reliable during those times of the year. There are also privately-run summer ferries between Haines and Skagway.
A representative from one of those companies spoke up at Wednesday’s meeting. Shane Huskey is operations manager for the Haines-Skagway Fast Ferry, which serves mainly as a shuttle for summer cruise ship passengers between the two communities.
Huskey talked about the possibility of the Haines-Skagway Fast Ferry stepping up as an alternative transportation service while the marine highway dock is out of commission.
“We could combine our schedule to match up exactly with what the Haines ferry schedule would be,” Huskey said. “I drove over to the Haines dock and was kind of looking around to see if there was a possibility where there would be uninterrupted service from Skagway straight to the ferry terminal itself instead of going to the [cruise ship] dock in Haines.”
The fast ferry uses the Skagway small boat harbor, so it wouldn’t be impacted by the closure of the marine highway dock.
As for the possibility of continuing marine highway vessel service to Skagway, Neussl said he has concerns about DOT ferries trying to use one of Skagway’s other docks. He said the Malaspina will probably be filling in for the Matanuska next fall and winter. That means even if the ferry system did use the railroad or ore dock, it would be passenger-only service.
Neussl said contracting with a private company like the Haines Skagway Fast Ferry or Allen Marine is an option DOT is looking into.
“So [there’s] more research to do on that and still an unknown cost, and whether the project can bear the cost depending on the funding available for the project and what the construction work is supposed to consume,” Neussl said. “But those are things that we’re looking into in terms of alternative service.”
DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said this week his department is waiting on an official recommendation from the municipality before making a final decision about the timing of the project. The Skagway Borough Assembly is scheduled to discuss the ferry float project at its meeting this Thursday.