The fast ferry Fairweather sails Chatham Strait, between Admiralty and Chichagof islands in 2010. One of its four new engines broke March 7 while sailing Prince William Sound. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The M/V Fairweather will provide service between Sitka and Juneau on Fridays. The addition of the fast ferry boosts the number of weekly northbound ships from the proposed one to four (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The Alaska Marine Highway System released its summer 2016 ferry schedule today (01-12-16), and as expected, it includes trimmed-down service. But service to Sitka is far more robust than originally proposed.

Here is the original story from KRBD:

The draft summer schedule called for one northbound and one southbound ferry a week. Under the final schedule, Sitka will have three northbound sailings (via M/V Matanuska and M/V LeConte) and one southbound ferry sailing (via M/V Columbia) a week, as well as the fast ferry M/V Fairweather operating to and from Juneau on Fridays.

Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell said, “It’s a huge improvement and I’m just very thrilled to see the response from the Alaska Marine Highway folks to address the needs here in Sitka and the region.” The fast ferry Fairweather will operate four days a week, serving Juneau, Haines, Skagway and Sitka.

Jeremy Woodrow, spokesman for the Alaska Marine Highway System, said that change was in response to public comment, particularly from Sitka residents.

“Sitka had probably the most drastic reduction in service in the draft schedule, and that was because of elimination of the fast ferries. By adding in the fast ferry, changing the way the LeConte is running, Sitka will get improved ferry service than what had been previously proposed.”

For the region as a whole, Woodrow said customers will notice the reduced fleet size, which  is in response to state budget cuts. “One of the main ferries that will not be operating is the Taku, which was in layup last summer, as well. And the Malaspina will be in an overhaul period for the majority of the summer.”

One caveat, though: Woodrow cautioned this summer ferry schedule is based on funding levels in Gov. Bill Walker’s spending plan, released last month. The Legislature meets soon and could change those funding levels, which would change service.

Woodrow said, “Where it will change is to be determined. There’s a lot that can happen throughout the legislative session, and we aren’t going to guess what may happen right now. But we do have to put out a schedule, so passengers can begin planning their travel for the summer.”

Calling the ferry Sitka’s “road,” McConnell hopes the schedule stays put as Sitkans make their reservations for the summer. “It would not be good for business to have the schedule change at the last minute. So hopefully what we see now is what remains when the legislature is through with it.”

For the near future, passengers who want to book reservations will need to call. The online reservation system is going through an overhaul and will debut on May 1st, 2016. That’s when the summer season – and summer prices – begin.

The full summer ferry schedule can be viewed online here:

The Alaska Marine Highway System’s toll-free reservation number is 800-642-0066.

KCAW’s Brielle Schaeffer contributed reporting.