MAT-SU - A $72 million ferry in the works for six years is about to officially become the property of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Now, the M/V Susitna may become a gift that starts costing.
Borough Manager John Moosey said he expects that by next month, the borough will take ownership of the ferry, now moored at the Alaska Ship and Drydock in Ketchikan.
But there are no ferry landings in place at Mat-Su or Anchorage in Cook Inlet, and despite efforts by the borough, there are no short-term takers for the unique ferry - the world's first ice-breaking catamaran.
If the ferry isn't put to use, it will have to be stored. Keeping it at the borough's Port MacKenzie could cost upward of $2 million a year, borough officials say.
"Every dollar spent on that is a dollar that's not available for education, roads and everything else," assemblyman Steve Colligan said. "We are all committed and dedicated to putting it to good use, or transferring it to somebody that could put it to good use."
The borough didn't have to pay for the ferry's construction, thanks to the largesse of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. The vessel was built as a U.S. Department of Defense research prototype, a newfangled 200-foot beach landing craft with ice-breaking capabilities and a catamaran design. It can carry 114 passengers and 20 vehicles.
Federal grant language requires the borough put the ferry into service between Anchorage and the Mat-Su. That means the borough can't sell the ship outright, officials say.
Colligan is working with members of Alaska's federal delegation to get that language changed, he said. He hopes to use as a bargaining chip the fact that the ship was originally supposed to carry 40 cars, but it was built for half that.
Meanwhile, it could be a year, or much longer, before a dock facility is built on either side to allow ferry service to start.
The borough has a $7 million grant for the first phase of construction, expected to start this summer, Moosey said. Another $7 million is needed, he said. Borough officials are working with Anchorage municipal officials on getting the requisite permit to build a landing in the Ship Creek area.
Moosey said he's also talked about storing the ferry in Coffman Cove, a small Southeast community on the northeast coast of Prince of Wales Island. He couldn't say how much that option would cost the borough, but that it would be cheaper than Port MacKenzie. A Coffman Cove city official didn't return a call for comment.
Borough officials had hoped to find a way to put the vessel to use in other places, selling it and leasing it back or using some other arrangement. But the vessel is so unique that several possible takers say they aren't interested.
Moosey mentioned the Alaska Marine Highway System.
No thank you, said Capt. Michael Neussl, deputy commissioner for marine operations with the state Department of Transportation. The state's ferry docks aren't compatible with the bow-loading Susitna because state ferries load and offload cars to the side.
"It's really designed to drive up to a beach, which we don't really do," Neussl said.
The state would also have to certify the vessel for routes and train a crew for the ferry's specialized operations, only to have to give the Susitna back in a few years, he said.
Coffman Cove is about to start its own ferry system this summer, said Kent Miller, manager for the North End Ferry Authority. The Susitna wouldn't be fast enough for that run, Miller said, and its fuel costs are too expensive.
The ferry's ice-breaking capacity is "overkill" for Coffman Cove, but great for Cook Inlet, he said. "It certainly would be best to put it in service on the route for which it was intended."
Moosey talked to the U.S. Coast Guard, but that agency doesn't want to take the time to train up a crew only to have to give the vessel back in the future. The Coast Guard is also trying to standardize its fleet, he said.
The borough has also had discussions with the Kenai Peninsula Borough and there are rumors of an undisclosed "foreign location" that might be interested in a beach-landing craft, Colligan said.
There's talk of using the Susitna to do trips to Tyonek or take fishermen out on junkets, Moosey said.
"But really none of this pans out financially unless we have a regularly scheduled ferry business," he said. "We're bugging the heck out of people, trying to make the best we can out of this opportunity."