An Alaska Marine Highway ferry docked in Skagway. (Emily Files)

An Alaska Marine Highway ferry docked in Skagway. (Emily Files)

Skagway leaders are hoping the state changes its plans for the town’s ferry dock. The Alaska Department of Transportation is preparing to refurbish the dock this fall and winter. But Skagway officials say that temporary fix isn’t the best option in light of new Alaska Class Ferries due to sail the Lynn Canal in 2018.

Skagway’s mayor and assembly are lobbying the state for a ferry dock replacement, not refurbishment.

In September, Mayor Mark Schaefer sent a letter to Gov. Bill Walker. Schaefer proposes what he says is a more ‘cost-effective’ solution for the dock in light of the new Alaska Class Ferries. He asks the state to consider reconfiguring Skagway’s dock to be compatible with the new vessels’ bow-loading doors.

“The refurbishment does not allow for the efficient berthing that they need, meaning in-berthing, so that they can drive cars on and drive them off at the other end,” said Schaefer at a recent assembly meeting “Because of that, the Alaska Class Ferry schedule gets a little skewed.”

Schaefer notes that a bow-loading terminal would cut turnaround time as ferries come and go.

Schaefer wrote the letter in September. A few months later, Gov. Walker announced he would not pursue the Juneau Access Road. Skagway Assemblyman Orion Hanson wondered if that could open funding for the Skagway dock.

“This might be our chance to really put this at the forefront of the state legislature,” Hanson said.

In February, Gov. Walker responded to Schaefer’s letter. The governor voices concerns about changing plans at this stage. But he says he asked DOT to work closely with Skagway to develop an ‘optimal plan.’

“We have been directed to work with the municipality of Skagway to explore those options,” said DOT Deputy Commissioner Mike Neussl.

He says DOT will meet with Skagway officials to discuss their issues with the current plan. But DOT is apprehensive about changing course.

“There are challenges in terms of redesign potential delay in doing the project, additional funding necessary for a more complex project than was originally intended and trying to figure out what the master plan is for the port of Skagway,” Neussl said.

Skagway leaders are requesting the dock be replaced with a facility that has more efficient loading capacity. But Neussl says that wouldn’t necessarily change the Alaska Class Ferry assignments. DOT plans to run one ferry between Haines and Skagway and the other between Haines and Juneau. Coast Guard rules limit the day boats to maximum 12-hour shifts.

“The impetus for scheduling them with two vessels running two separate routes out of Haines is because a single vessel can’t do the triangle route in the allotted time,” Neussl said. “It can’t go Auke Bay-Haines-Skagway back to Haines and Auke Bay all in the 12 hour day. So due to the time constraints on those vessels the scheduling needed to be altered to stay within the day boat requirements.”

Neussl says, because a separate ferry will be making the relatively short trip between Skagway and Haines, a quick turnaround time at the Skagway dock isn’t necessary. He says the current side-loading set-up is adequate for now.

Neussl says the refurbishment will buy time while the community comes up with a long-term plan for its port.

“We really need to know what that looks like before investing significantly into a expanded ferry terminal dock,” Neussl said.

Skagway’s goal to improve its waterfront has been in limbo for over a year due to access issues with the company that controls much of the property.

But the community’s push for a different ferry dock is causing DOT to put a slight hold on things. Project manager David Lowell says the uncertainty caused them to delay the estimated project bid date from March to May.

Skagway and DOT officials will meet in the near future to discuss the municipality’s request.