Inter-Island Ferry Authority General Manager Dennis Watson took the ferry to Ketchikan this week to give an update to the Chamber of Commerce.

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority carries about 50,000 passengers each year between Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan. And a recent study by Sheinberg Associates shows that over 12 years, the ferry saved those people more than $14 million; that is, if the same number of people had traveled by plane.

Those are just a couple of the benefits both islands have experienced since the IFA started service in 2002.

Watson talked a little about the study, but he quickly opened the floor for questions. One audience member asked about the IFA’s spare ferry. The IFA owns the Stikine and the Prince of Wales. The latter is the port authority’s standby boat, so most of the time it’s not in use. Watson said they looked into selling the Prince of Wales, but it’s a challenging decision.

“It’s a tough one. It costs us roughly $350,000 a year to babysit that boat,” he said. “But I can give you a good for-instance: a couple of years ago we were just getting by Guard Island and the Stikine swallowed two valves. So back to town we went. Three weeks later, we were in operation and got the boat back and going. Had we not had (the Prince of Wales) we wouldn’t have had service for those three weeks.”

Watson said that, with a couple of other mechanical issues that came up that same year, the Stikine was out of service about six weeks. On top of emergencies, there’s also routine maintenance to schedule.

A break in service affects more than passengers, the IFA transports about 3 million pounds of seafood annually, supporting the commercial fishing industry. It also carries fresh produce from Ketchikan to POW, providing faster service than a weekly barge.

“There are an awful lot of businesses and activities that depend on that boat running back and forth, so not only is the issue the expense to us for keeping the lay-by boat, but what happens to other people if we don’t have it,” he said.

In response to another audience question, Watson said that nearly all of the IFA’s approximately 40 employees live on Prince of Wales Island, and the on-board employees work 12-hour shifts, four days a week. He said 12 hours is the limit allowed by the U.S. Coast Guard, and they push it to that limit in order to maximize port time in Ketchikan.

“It would seem nice to come over here and turn right around and go back, but that isn’t the way it works for people who want to come over here and do a doctor appointment and then go back that day, which is one of the huge savings involved with it because a tremendous amount of the medical care for people on (POW) Island happens in Ketchikan,” he said.

The IFA leaves Hollis on POW at 8 in the morning. The trip takes about three hours, so passengers have about four hours in Ketchikan before the ferry departs at 3:30 p.m., headed back to the big island.

Another audience member wondered about the condition of the IFA docks on both sides of the 36-mile ferry trip.

“They’re both a mess,” he said. “If you’ve ever been on the dock that we tie up here in town and gone inside that thing and looked around, you’d walk out with your jaw dropped. It’s a mess.”

The docks are state-owned, and the Alaska Department of Transportation has plans to rebuild them. Watson said the Hollis dock will be completely rebuilt next year. During a portion of that construction, the ferry will change its POW port to Coffman Cove.

“And that will be what we call a ‘turn and burn.’ It’s a four-hour-and-change trip to Ketchikan,” he said. “We’ll be offloading people and vans and onloading the other, and heading right back to the island.”

Watson said that change likely will take place in May or June of 2015. State officials have estimated that the Hollis dock will be closed about two weeks, but Watson believes it likely will be closer to a month.

If you click the link below, you can find a downloadable version of the Sheinberg Associates study, along with more information about IFA.