The M/V Tazlina rounds Point Retreat on its way to Juneau on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Jay Beedle)
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The state’s $60 million Tazlina ferry is coming to the rescue of several communities in Southeast Alaska, each with their own unique transportation challenges.  Sam Dapcevich, a state Department of Transportation spokesperson, said Friday that the Alaska Class Ferry will be in action in February and March serving  Angoon, Gustavus, Hoonah, Haines and Skagway out of its base in Juneau.

“We’re really happy that we can make this work for northern panhandle communities,” he told CoastAlaska.

That’s welcome news as upper Lynn Canal and Southeast villages were facing more than a two-month gap in winter service.

In Angoon, the state’s ferry brings in “everything from soup to nuts” and Angoon Trading Company, town’s only grocery store, has been struggling, says co-owner Shayne Thompson. He’s chartering a landing craft to bring in bulk groceries next week to supply the store before the state ferry arrives on February 10.

State transporation officials have been relying on private vessels to try and service communities cut off in recent weeks.

The island village was recently visited by a passenger-only Goldbelt, Inc. catamaran during a January 24 circuit that included Juneau and Tenakee Springs. It cost the state about $6,860 but was one-way only.

Thompson says that didn’t work for people trying to get to Juneau for shopping or medical appointments.

“People aren’t gonna hop on a ferry if there’s not a way to get back other than flying,” he said. “Because a lot of the people that ride the ferry don’t like to fly.”

Ridership records show that eight passengers arrived from Juneau on January 24. And seven departed from the Admiralty Island community during that catamaran’s sailing.

Angoon doesn’t have an airport. It has floatplanes which are often delayed in the winter. And the Goldbelt charter boats couldn’t carry vehicles or pallets of groceries for Thompson’s store.

I don’t think the catamarans are the answer this time of year,” Thompson said.

Front Street in Angoon in 2017. (File photo by Emily Russell/KCAW)

Tazlina has seen little action since entering service in 2019

Questions have swirled for more than two months over whether the state would activate the Tazlina, which has been tied up in Juneau’s Auke Bay as the fleet’s reserve ship.

“We brought this up months ago,” said Earling Walli of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, the largest of the three crew unions. “It’s supposed to be a ready reserve vessel.”

In recent months DOT has used crew shortages as a rationale for keeping the Tazlina tied to the dock.

But there have been other factors. Some of the Tazlina’s certificates had lapsed meaning it didn’t have Coast Guard authorization to immediately sail.

Dapcevich says that was a factor. But also many of the fleet’s crew members were already assigned to ships in the yard.

“Even if we have enough crew to pull off of overhauled ships, that slows down their overhaul process which ends up affecting people in the future,” he said.

The IBU’s Earling Walli says the unions have never been convinced that there weren’t enough ferry workers.

“We’ve always said that there hasn’t been any crewing issues that they should be able to pull people off other vessels in yards,” he said. “They have the ability to pull people from the vessels and yards and put them on revenue runs — they do it all the time.”

But in any event, he says his members are glad that they’re finally being called back to work.

In Angoon, grocer Shayne Thompson says he’s relieved to have regular winter service on its way. He says rider demand in the warmer months might be higher overall, but mid-winter is when it’s a lifeline.

I feel like instead of trying to treat the ferry system like some sort of pseudo-cruise line, they need to start pulling them offline in the spring or in the fall,” Thompson said. “So that in the dead of winter we actually have ferry service when we really need it.”

The Matanuska ferry is slated to return from overhaul on January 31. And with the Tazlina now on the board most Southeast communities will have regular ferry service for at least another couple of months.