AUGUST 1, 2012 — An $80 million multipurpose ferry designed to operate in three modes has thus had only one role: white elephant.
Built at Alaska Ship & Drydock with the aid of funding from the Office of Naval Research, for Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough, the ferry Susitna has a catamaran mode for high speeds; a small-water-area-twin-hull (SWATH) mode for stability in high sea states; and a shallow-draft landing-craft mode that provides substantial buoyancy for maneuvering in shallow water. The ship is designed with a center "barge" that can be hydraulically raised and lowered, while the buoyancy of its catamaran hulls can be adjusted while under way.
It is also the world's first ice-breaking twin-hulled vessel.
While, so far as is known, no commercial ferry operator has ever gone out looking for a vessel with that particular combination of capabilities, ONR is interested in the vessel's transformational hull form as a technology demonstrator to support Navy sea basing and expeditionary warfare concepts.
Reportedly, the ferry performed well on sea trials. But though it was completed in September 2010 it has yet to enter service. Among the problems: there is nowhere for the ferry to land at either Port Mackenzie, at one end of its intended route, or Anchorage at the other. According to the Anchorage Daily News, the Mat-Su Borough has no money to put in the needed facilities, while Anchorage is held up waiting for permits from the Corps of Engineers.
Meantime, the ferry remains docked at Ketchikan, costing the Borough nearly $67,000 a a month for docking, security, utilities and maintenance, reports the newspaper. It also notes that if the ferry does not enter commuter service, the Borough may have to repay $8.5 million in Federal Transit Administration grants.