The Mat-Su Borough's ice-breaking ferry may finally get a job -- in the tropics.
The borough wants to cut its losses and give the boat to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, said planner Emerson Krueger, who has become the borough's point man on the ferry project.
The $80 million vessel, named the Susitna, was born out of a unique partnership between the U.S. Navy, which wanted a prototype for a fast military landing craft, and the borough, which wanted an ice-breaking ferry to transport commuters across Knik Arm.
But the ferry, featured two years ago on the cover of WorkBoat magazine, has never been put to work.
Neither Mat-Su nor Anchorage have landings for a car-carrying ferry, though the borough did build a $4.5 million ferry terminal. The Susitna remains docked in Ward Cove near the Ketchikan shipyard where it was built. The borough didn't pay to build the boat, but as the owner it is now responsible for bills averaging nearly $90,000 a month for dock fees, insurance, maintenance and other expenses.
In late summer, the borough began looking to sell it, give it away, list it as surplus property or store it for cheap. Nothing's worked out -- yet.
Its newest best hope has emerged from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Krueger said. Even in that, there is not yet the guarantee of a deal, Krueger said.
The Marianas' interest may have originated with an individual in Vancouver, David Oliver of the Seahurst Group, according to the borough. Oliver is working on behalf of the Marianas, according to an e-mail he sent the borough.
Reached by e-mail, Oliver said he was prohibited from identifying his client but said it's a group that wants a ferry, and the Susitna is a good candidate.
"We don't do marine work, but I was asked by a friend, Mr. Jerry Briske of Anchorage, to see if I could assist in finding a buyer. He said that the Mat-Su Borough seemed to have tried all the logical candidates to place the vessel without success," Oliver wrote.
If the deal closes, the owner will pay his company, he said.
"We are doing our best to have the Susitna the vessel of choice," he said. "A comprehensive study is under way to highlight its attributes."
James Stump, legal counsel to the commonwealth's governor, has been in contact with the ship's designers with detailed questions. Stump told the designers the commonwealth needs a vessel to transport cargo as well as passengers for voyages of 60 miles to 150 miles between the island of Guam and the commonwealth islands of Rota and Saipan.
Could a vessel designed for quick crossings of an inlet work in the open ocean? he asked. Because it's classified as a "high speed" vessel, how would it function at low speed? What effect will the military design have? And could the ice-breaking features be altered?
Most of the questions were answered satisfactorily, Krueger said. The ferry could remain close enough to land when sailing between main islands to meet safety requirements, he said. At lower speeds, the boat uses less fuel and can operate in heavier seas, according to its designers. The Navy design doesn't affect its use as ferry for the commonwealth. Perhaps the most unique aspect is a barge deck that can raise for faster sailing or lower for beach landings, which the Marianas seem interested in, Krueger said.
Still the ship's ice-breaking capability, essential to the borough, adds weight that may make the vessel too heavy to be practical in the tropical Marianas, he said.
The naval architect for the Susitna, Guido Perla of Seattle, told the commonwealth the ship includes "ice knives" that could be removed to save weight. But other elements are part of the ship.
"The ice breaking requirements are inherent to the structure of the vessel and represent additional weight that would be carried and would not be possible to remove without major modifications of the vessel hull structure," Perla wrote in an Oct. 7 e-mail to Stump as well as the borough's representative on the project, retired Navy Capt. Lew Madden.
The Marianas remained interested, according to e-mails to the borough.
Most of the money for the ferry came through earmarks wedged into the federal defense budget by then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens for Navy research purposes. But more than $12 million came from Federal Transit Administration grants, counting money for the Point MacKenzie terminal.
The borough would have to repay the transit money if the boat isn't used for public transportation.
But if it gives the boat to the commonwealth for use as a ferry, it's at least partly off the hook, according to the Federal Transit Administration.
The commonwealth is eligible for the same public transportation grants, the Transit Administration said. The borough might still have to repay the federal government for the terminal building but is trying to find ways to avoid that, Krueger said.
The borough looked into turning over the Susitna to the state ferry system, but its unique design didn't fit in with its fleet and docks. Entrepreneurs have floated proposals, including a man from Connecticut who suggested it could be used in Superstorm Sandy cleanup, but that has gone nowhere. Another idea, which hasn't died entirely, would be to turn it over to federal researchers for work in the Arctic, Krueger said.
While the Marianas option is promising, it's not definite either, he said.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been tracking what happens to the Susitna. It was built in her hometown and she christened it. No matter what happens, she said Wednesday, the work gave a tremendous boost to the Ketchikan shipyard, as well as valuable information to the Navy.
The borough has struggled to find money for landings, but the answer this time won't come from Congress, which must cut spending, the senator said. More earmarks are out of the question, she said.
For a while, the borough was looking at dry docking the vessel to save money.
"As disappointing as it might be to not have it plying our waters, I would sure rather have it be working and be providing a service," Murkowski said. "If it's got to be in the Marianas because all of the Alaska options didn't pan out, I suppose that's a good use."
The Marianas are about 4,500 miles from the Susitna's intended home in Southcentral Alaska.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com.