Wanted: Good home for free Alaska icebreaking ferry

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Sat Feb 9, 2013 7:03am EST

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Free to a good home: One high-powered, state-of-the-art icebreaking commuter ferry.

Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the local government for the region north of Anchorage, is seeking takers for a sophisticated vessel bestowed on it three years ago but which has never been put to its intended use.

The M/V Sustina, an $80-million, Navy-funded prototype, is docked 800 miles (1,285 km) southeast of the borough in Ketchikan, the city where it was built and christened.

The ship, obtained with the help of the late Senator Ted Stevens, was intended to be a precursor to the Knik Arm Bridge, a controversial project that would link Port Mackenzie, near Wasilla, to downtown Anchorage.

But dreams of shuttling Matanuska-Susitna commuters to Anchorage via ferry - a scheme that sought to cut a 75-mile (120-km) road trip down to a 2.5-mile (4-km) water crossing - were never realized. Landing facilities for the specialized craft were not built, and local officials said they don't want to provide money for such a project.

Just operating the ferry would cost $2.5 million to $3 million a year, not including any outlays for landing stations on both sides of the water, said borough manager John Moosey.

Local leaders have concluded the ferry operations would eat up too much of the borough's annual $43 million budget, he said.

Meanwhile, monthly maintenance costs are about $60,000, according to borough port director Marc Van Dongen.

So now the borough is advertising its Susitna giveaway offer, hoping another government agency will take it.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with it, except it's unique and one of a kind," Moosey said.

ENGINEERING MARVEL

When it was built, the Susitna was hailed as a marvel of marine engineering. The 195-foot (310-km) ship, a catamaran, can be converted from a landing craft that runs up onto beaches to a deep-draft vessel. It can travel at bursts of speed of up to 20 knots, or at a sustained speed of up to 17 knots.

Its reinforced hull can power through ice, and blade-like "ice knives" were designed to break up chunks that might be sucked into the engine. The ship was featured in a cover story in a 2010 issue of WorkBoat magazine, which celebrated its "cutting-edge" design.

The best hope for the Susitna would be for another government entity to take it over, Moosey and Van Dongen said.

Under Federal Transit Administration rules, a government-to-government transfer would require no purchase price, Van Dongen said. If a private company wants to take over the Susitna, the FTA would require an outright purchase, he said, without elaborating on what the cost might be.

There have been expressions of interest in the ship by government agencies around the country and some outside the United States, the officials said. Those include a U.S. East Coast port authority that already operates ferries. Private companies are also checking out the ship, Van Dongen said.

Even the Alaska state ferry system is taking another look at the Susitna after rejecting a takeover last year. The governor wants to replace one of the older large ferries with two smaller ferries, and the Susitna might fit the state's needs, Van Dongen said.

Matanuska-Susitna will be accepting bids for the Susitna through March 29.

Meanwhile, the Knik Arm Bridge remains a project on the drawing boards. The bridge was one of two in Alaska that received congressional earmarks in 2005 - later rescinded.

An agency created by the state, the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, is seeking private funding for the bridge. The most recent official cost estimate for the first phase of construction is $706 million, according to the authority. (Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)

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