State to offer limited catamaran service for Alaska towns

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The state transportation department has signed contracts with vendors to run catamarans to southeast Alaska communities affected by a lack of ferry service though some community leaders question if those options will meet resident needs for freight and groceries.

Gustavus City Manager Tom Williams told CoastAlaska there is no scheduled ferry for Gustavus until the third week in March, though the community has requested one in the coming weeks amid a harsh winter with heavy snows that have taken a toll on buildings. He said residents have relied on state-run ferries to take their vehicles to and from Juneau for lumber or other supplies.

“Without the ferry, they’re not going to be able to do that,” he said.

Officials in Gustavus have been among those asking the department to activate the idle Tazlina ferry. The department says the ferry won’t be ready until early February. Meantime, officials have signed contracts with private vendors for passenger service through March.

Williams said he’s not sure if the arrangements will help Gustavus much, citing concerns that there will be a limited ability to transport needed freight, such as building supplies and groceries.

Shannon McCarthy, a transportation department spokesperson, said the agency would prefer to sail its own vessels. The agency has said some of the Tazlina’s certificates had lapsed, delaying its ability to sail. It also said it’s having difficulty finding enough crew members.

Shannon Adamson, who leads the local branch of the Masters, Mates & Pilots union, said if the state marine highway system said it lacks crew to operate the Tazlina, “then their crew shortage is much more severe than they’ve led anyone else to believe.”

Adamson said winter gaps in ferry service are a result of poor management decisions.

The department issued an invitation for bids for vehicle and freight service, and at least one firm has indicated interest.