The strike broke out July 24, paralyzing the system statewide. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

A tentative deal reached late Thursday between the state and a striking ferry union could get the Alaska Marine Highway System back up and running as early as this weekend.

Alaska Department of Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon cautioned reporters Friday that the ferry shutdown – now in its tenth day – won’t be reversed overnight.

“I hope everyone understands that we can’t just flip a switch and get the ships running,” MacKinnon said. “They’ve got a schedule that they’ve got to get into, going the direction they need to go in order to get back on, on back in sync with everything.”

In a statement, the union praised the outcome.

“This new agreement addresses many of our members’ concerns,” Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific President Marina Secchitano, the union’s chief negotiator, said in a statement. “We are very pleased with our new tentative agreement and we appreciate the efforts of the state’s bargaining team in helping to bridge our differences to reach a fair resolution.”

The long-running impasse over a contract deal turned into a systemwide shut down last Wednesday. The draft contract now goes before the IBU’s 430-odd members for ratification.

Alaska Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka says details of the agreement wouldn’t be public until that happens.

“But the areas that were subject for the greatest area of compromise were in terms of wages, health care and the duration of the contract,” she told reporters Friday.

The ferry Malaspina makes a rare visit to waters off downtown Sitka during the 2010 Alaska Day celebration. A state transportation plan would route ferries to a new terminal across Baranof Island at the end of a new road. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The tentative contract is for three years, something the union had been pushing for. Earlier Friday, IBU members packed up their round-the-clock picket lines at ferry terminals in Juneau and Ketchikan.

The ferry strike forced the state to refund $3.2 million in fares for 8,300 passengers and 2,300 vehicles, Mackinnon said.

“That is a big revenue hit to the system and you know that loss of revenue will impact our ability to operate,” he added.

Negotiations through a federal mediator were held all week and often late into the night. State Sen. Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau) says he and his staff did what they could to keep everyone at the table.

“We booked meeting rooms in legislative space so it was neutral ground and we made coffee and emptied wastebaskets and whatever we could do — without breaking the rules — to first get the parties talking, and then keep them talking,” Kiehl told CoastAlaska.

Kiehl says the strike heavily disrupted the flow of people, freight and vehicles.

“I am really, really excited at the prospect of getting that service moving again,” he said, “those vessels need to sail for the economy and the culture of coastal Alaska.”

The IBU has been seeking 3 percent raises annually for the next three years. That’s after two years of wage freezes. The cost of health care premiums to workers and a disparity in pay between Alaska residents and non-residents have also been sticking points.

State officials had alleged some of the union’s initial demands were unlawful and had threatened that striking workers could face suspension or termination, calling the strike illegal.

The Alaska Marine Highway System hasn’t been shut down by a strike since 1977.