Alaska town gets ferry boat and more expenses

The Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 1, 2011 

PALMER, Alaska — The Mat-Su Borough soon will take ownership of a unique ferry born out of a partnership with the U.S. Navy that cost local taxpayers almost nothing.

Until now.

The Susitna -- paid for in an era of federal largesse and congressional earmarks -- will be turned over to the borough as soon as next month, the Mat-Su Assembly was told this week at a work session.

And with the ship title comes bills for berth fees, utilities, security and a minimal crew, no matter whether the Susitna is used as a ferry or not.

Just to store the ship in Ketchikan, where it was built and still is being docked, could cost the borough an estimated $1.3 million a year, Assembly members were told. Docking it at the borough's Port MacKenzie could be even more expensive.

So the Assembly has some difficult decisions to make, new borough manager John Moosey said at Tuesday night's session.

The possibilities include some surprising twists. The borough could abandon the project and sell the ship, but for a fraction of its cost. It could store it, though at which port hasn't been decided. It could lease it to another operator. Or it could sell it, then lease it back and keep the ferry dream alive.

None of these ideas is likely to come cheap, and the Assembly hasn't yet chosen its path.

If the borough decided to forget about ferry service and sell the vessel, it would have to repay the federal government $21 million in transit grants it received for the project, the Assembly was told.

The Susitna is a 195-foot-long, 60-foot-wide steel and aluminum ship with a barge deck that can rise for faster sailing and lower for beach landings. It's the world's first twin-hulled vessel that can break through ice. It's a Navy prototype but instead of ending up at a scrap yard like most models, this ship is supposed to be turned over to the Mat-Su Borough for use as a ferry.

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