Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone has put the territory’s chit in the hat for a state-of-the-art, $78 million passenger and car ferry built as a military prototype that an Alaska village is offering free to a qualifying public entity in the United States, according to a statement from Malone’s office. [MATSU LETTER]
If the territory is the successful applicant, the 100-passenger, 20-car vessel would ply the St. Croix-St. Thomas ferry route that stopped running regularly when the Sea Trans ferry Royal Miss Belmar ran aground July 4, 2011.
The V.I. Public Services Commission revoked Sea Trans’ exclusive franchise for the route in September 2012, for effectively abandoning the route.
The vessel in Alaska was originally designed as a prototype military landing craft as a demonstration project for the U.S. Navy, but the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Ala.) persuaded the Navy to donate the vessel to the Alaskan borough of Matanuska-Susitna for use as a ferry and for emergency transportation in heavy seas.
The vessel is two-hulled, like a catamaran, with an experimental central barge platform that can be raised and lowered, so it can either travel fast or have a shallower draft. It can operate in heavy seas and cut through up to 2 feet of ice, according to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough government website.
The vessel can also carry heavy equipment. It is 195 feet in length with a 60-foot beam, four diesel engines, and can travel at a speed up to 20 knots per hour. Its draft varies from 12 feet to 4 feet, depending on how its central barge is loaded and deployed.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough government is getting rid of the vessel because it is not using it, does not have plans to use it in the near future, and it costs upward of $88,000 per month to maintain, according to the borough website.
"The V.I. Government is now in the process of trying to procure a new ferry to take over the St. Thomas-St. Croix route and a vessel like this is ideal," Malone said in the statement. "And its maintenance costs will be dramatically offset by the fact we would get it for free," he said.
Restoring ferry service will be good for the economy, Malone said.
"As we struggle to rebuild our economy we need affordable transportation between our islands so that people, goods and money can better circulate through our territory," Malone said. "With a ferry like this, St. Croix farmers could bring a truckload of produce over to St. Thomas and more residents and tourists in this district could make day or weekend trips to St. Croix."
Malone sent an appeal to the Alaskan borough officials to consider the Virgin Islands’ need for such a ferry.
"I let them know our situation and that this ferry would operate along a federally approved marine route," he said. "I also asked them to forward the ferry’s detailed specifications to the Department of Public Works – the agency charged with obtaining a new ferry for the Virgin Islands."
Malone said he was optimistic about the territory’s chance of acquiring the ferry, although other cities, including Los Angeles, have expressed interest. “We certainly have nothing to lose by asking and running the numbers to see if this is a good option for us," Malone said.
While the upkeep costs are high, half that sum is insurance, and operating as a ferry in the tropics may not require the same level of expense the vessel required in Alaska, according to a staffer in Malone’s office.
These sorts of questions will need to be answered as the territory looks closer at whether this vessel would make sense, Malone said Tuesday afternoon.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has received Malone’s request and will be opening all bids and proposals for the vessel on March 29, confirmed Patty Sullivan, the borough’s public affairs director, Tuesday afternoon.
Asked whether the arctic vessel was appropriate for the tropical ferry route, Sullivan said its weight might be a consideration, but that operators might remove some of its features, such as ice knives, to reduce weight. "But it could run the route," Sullivan said.
"It lets the sea pass by and, in 6-foot swells, it is quite a calm ride," she said.
The borough can give the vessel to a government entity or it can sell it – but if it sells it, it must pay the federal government back part of the value of the vessel, so it must sell it for enough to cover those costs, she said. Money is not the only concern, though. "We really want it to find a good home," Sullivan said.
Other areas have expressed interest, but the Virgin Islands may have a good chance, she speculated.
Sullivan said the proposal that comes closest to the Federal Transit Authority’s requirements for the vessel may have an advantage and, because the territory wants it to ferry passengers, “that’s a good sign because the other interested groups are looking more at using it for emergency response and cargo and those are not the mission the FTA has in mind.”
But the territory and the Alaskan borough will both have to perform due diligence, make sure the V.I. is eligible and meets FTA requirements, and that the vessel makes sense for the purpose, she said.
"It is a serious vessel and does require some training," Sullivan said. "Our state ferry crews used it some. Compared to a normal ferry, they say it is like driving a Maserati," she said.
The borough will have an idea how much interest there is in the vessel when they open bids March 29, Sullivan said, noting the final decision will be made sometime after that, but there is no fixed timeline.