It’ll be a tough winter for a lot of coastal communities that depend on state ferry service.
“It’s greatly reduced,” said Amanda Becker, the ferry terminal manager in Kodiak. “There’s no two ways about it.”
That’s how Becker sums up the new winter schedule, which was finalized after a brief five-day public comment period.
Although the Alaska Marine Highway System made some adjustments in its proposed plan for the winter, many communities will still see long gaps in service.
The Tustumena will sail to Kodiak until the end of September and be out of service until April. During part of this period, the Kennicott will visit Kodiak every other week, which Becker says will be a big adjustment for Kodiak travelers.
“People are used to being able to go up to Homer or Anchorage for a weekend,” Becker said. “Do their Costco shopping, get their doctor’s appointments in, whatever other things they want to get and bring it all back.”
The Tustumena also brings a weekly shipment of groceries to Kodiak’s Safeway store, which often includes fresh produce. Now other arrangements, which are likely more expensive, will have to be made.
Some other downsides to the Kennicott: its fares are more expensive. Also, on one of its stops in Kodiak, it will arrive and depart in the wee hours of the morning.
Port Lions, a community near Kodiak, initially faced a winter with no service at all. But after protests and some pressure from local lawmakers, the Department of Transportation added Port Lions to the Kennicott’s winter schedule. But Becker says the stops will be weeks apart.
“It’s a hard schedule. It’s not a pretty schedule,” Becker said. “But the system’s taken such a big economic hit, that unfortunately it was between this or no service at all.”
Becker says the Kennicott is now doing the work of three boats.
There are communities like Ouzinkie, which was on the route, to and from Kodiak, which will see no service at all this winter – because its dock cannot accommodate the Kennicott. The Aleutian chain will also lose ferry service after October.
The Department of Transportation says these cuts in service are necessary, because it lost about 45 million dollars in passenger revenues this fiscal year, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions as well as additional costs for repair and overhaul of some of its ferries.
Becker says there were no easy answers.
“It’s unfortunate, but things had to be cut some place,” she said.
Becker says the Aleutian chain is used to have a service gap in the winter, so reduced service is probably something those communities will be able to work around. But Becker says it’s not certain when service to the Aleutians will resume. Those communities still aren’t on the April schedule, which means the earlier they will see service would be May.
The Tustumena serves seven communities on the Aleutian chain from Kodiak: Chignik, Sand Point, King Cove, Cold Bay, False Pass, Akutan and Dutch Harbor-Unalaska.
Plans are to have the Tustumena up and running by April. During the ship’s down time, she’ll undergo repairs. Part of the ship’s stabilizer system is down, so she wouldn’t have been able to operate safely in the stormy seas of winter anyway.
Given the age of the ferry, which was built in 1964, there are few technicians in the world who have the expertise to make these repairs. Earlier this year, a group from Great Britain began work on the stabilizers — but were called back home because of the pandemic.