Alaska borough wants to give away expensive ferry

This undated photo provided by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough shows the Matanuska ferry, in Alaska. An Alaska borough stuck with a $90,000 monthly bill for maintaining the ferry it can't use is offering the $78 million vessel free to federal, state or local governments. The 200-foot Matanuska can carry 120 passengers and 20 vehicles. It was built with federal dollars as a Navy prototype in a deal that called for the borough to test it while shuttling people to Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. (AP Photo/Matanuska-Susitna Borough)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Take my ferry. Please.

An Alaska borough stuck with a $90,000 monthly bill for maintaining a ferry it can't use is offering the $78 million vessel free to any government entity — federal, state or local — that will have it.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough also will consider selling the ferry, the 200-foot Susitna, for pennies on the dollar to a private company. The borough appealed for a taker last week with a letter to the Passenger Vessel Association, a trade group for companies that operate ferries, dinner cruises, tour boats and gambling boats.

"We're trying to hook a buyer, and those are folks who might be using or needing ferries," said borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan.

If sold to a private entity, Sullivan said, the borough is seeking $7 million to cover the cost of paying back federal grants that may have to be reimbursed if the ferry is not used for municipal public transportation.

The largest communities in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are about an hour's drive from Anchorage over a sometimes icy highway. Mat-Su officials have long dreamed of shortening the commute with a two-mile crossing over Knik Arm, a finger of saltwater separating Alaska's most populous area with one that has room to grow.

The borough more than a decade ago sought help from the federal government.

Former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, promoted a plan to have a ferry funded by the Defense Department. The Navy paid for the vessel as a high-speed prototype of an amphibious landing craft for northern climates. Prototypes often are scrapped, Sullivan said, but in this case, a deal was struck for the boat to move Alaska commuters as the Navy monitored how it performed.

The catamaran can carry 120 passengers and 20 vehicles.

Sullivan rode on it two years ago and was impressed. She described it as highly agile and able to stay smooth in swells.

"One of the crewmen said, "This ship — the sea passes it by," she said.

It's not an icebreaker but it's designed to handle ice.

"If can lift two feet of ice and snap it over its bow," she said. "It's a great little ship and somebody's going to find a great deal."

A shipyard in Ketchikan built the Susitna. It remains in that city near the tip of the Alaska Panhandle because the borough has no money to build $15 million landing sites on both sides of the proposed ferry route. Also, the boat would be too expensive to operate, Sullivan said.

It's been expensive simply to own. Borough taxpayers took title to the vessel in August and have been on the hook for monthly expenses of $8,000 to $9,000 for moorage, $33,000 for operation and maintenance costs, which includes keeping a crew on board, and a whopping $44,000 for insurance.

Officials redoubled efforts to rid the borough of the vessel after borough assembly members this month narrowly rejected ending additional maintenance payments.

Sullivan said the borough has received expressions of interest internationally. The vessel's ability to operate in icy waters should make in useful in the north, she said.

"I still think it has a use in Alaska," Sullivan said.