The Skagway ferry dock. (Emily Files)

The Skagway ferry dock. (Emily Files)

At a meeting last week, Skagway borough officials wondered aloud what was happening with the planned Skagway ferry dock refurbishment. 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, 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 Spokesperson 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.”

But Woodrow says his department doesn’t want to use the Kennicott as the Matanuska’s replacement. 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.”

That’s why DOT would prefer to run the smaller, cheaper Malaspina while the Matanuska is out of commission. There’s just one problem. The Malaspina doesn’t have a SOLAS certification because it usually sails the Bellingham, Washington to Southeast route.

DOT has applied for a waiver with the Coast Guard to allow the Malaspina to operate without the certification on a short-term basis. Woodrow says he’s not 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. But it’s 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. DOT’s and Skagway’s interests 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. Though Woodrow says DOT is looking into other possibilities.

“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 due to weather conditions during the winter. 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.

At the most recent Skagway Borough Assembly meeting, resident Jan Wrentmore noted that the ferry dock project is listed on DOT’s website as tentatively going out to bid this month.

“I think we should request that we have the opportunity…they talked about mitigation for interruption of service,” Wrentmore said. “And I think before they go out to bid they should talk about what their plan is for that with the community.”

Woodrow says he’s not sure if DOT plans to get input from the community before finalizing a plan. He says the decision about whether to schedule the project this winter or next needs to happen soon, whether they hear back about the SOLAS waiver or not.

In making that decision, Woodrow says DOT is between a rock and a hard place: weighing the importance of ferry service to Skagway, the need to repair a deteriorating dock, and the ferry system’s dwindling finances.