Alaska House Rep. Dan Ortiz (I-Ketchikan) says he’s optimistic that ferry service between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, B.C. will resume as planned next spring.
State ferries haven’t run the 120-mile route linking the panhandle with the northern British Columbia road system since 2019. But Ortiz says plans to resume service by May 1 are on track.
“If we can get it to two days a week, after having no service to Prince Rupert, that’s a really good thing. And the Marine Highway has specifically set that project aside. They are specifically dedicated to getting us back to Rupert by May of 2022,” Ortiz said during a recent Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
While there are some challenges, Ortiz believes they can be overcome. The head of the Alaska Marine Highway System said earlier this year that a prior dispute over whether U.S. customs officials can carry firearms on Canadian soil would be resolved by May 1.
Ortiz says there have also been discussions and negotiations with Canadian authorities and a detention facility will be needed at the AMHS terminal in Prince Rupert to meet security requirements.
“So that we have a holding place for any person that might arrive drunk, etc., intoxicated, all those kinds of things, or might have a gun, something like that. So we have to build that holding facility in the terminal that we now have that’s not there.”
Another challenge is a rebuild of the dilapidated AMHS dock in Prince Rupert. Construction of a new ramp was put on hold in 2015 due to a dispute over construction materials. Federal funds would have paid for most of the project, requiring U.S. steel to be used, something opposed by Canadian officials. Ortiz says prior to COVID closures, he and members of the state transportation department met with Canadian officials and came up with a solution.
“And we had meetings with the Canadian ferry folks and they were all onboard. ‘Rather than spend money and continue to deal with the steel thing, why not just use our ramp over here (Canada’s) which we really just built’, and it’s the B.C. ferry ramp, ‘Why not just use it? It’s right next to our terminal,’” he recalled.
Ortiz believes the long-term solution is to build a short road from where the current AMHS ferry terminal is to the B.C. ferry dock.
In the meantime, Ortiz says inspectors checked the existing AMHS dock in Prince Rupert and determined it is functional and safe to use in the short term.
With $1 billion of Congress’ infrastructure bill dedicated to “essential ferry service” for rural areas, Ortiz says funds will be available to replace the ferry Tustumena, which serves Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska. He also is hopeful crew quarters can be added to the ferry Tazlina.
Ortiz says he’s also hopeful that federal money could fund a new vessel dedicated to the Prince Rupert route, making Ketchikan a hub city for the rest of the Alaska Marine Highway System.