Alaska marine highway hopes to add more fast ferries to fleet

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JUNEAU -- A proposed $350 million bond package to speed up state transportation projects allows $70 million for two new high-speed ferries in southeast Alaska.

One fast ferry already on the books is expected to begin service in fall 2002.

If the funding is approved by the Alaska Legislature and voters in November, the two additional ferries could join the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet at about the same time as the first, since all three vessels would be constructed at the same shipyard.

According to Capt. Norm Edwards of the AMHS, the proposed ferries would travel twice as fast and twice as often as the "blue canoes" now in the nearly 40-year-old state system.

For example, a trip from Juneau to Sitka would be shortened from nine to five hours and Ketchikan to Wrangell would take 3.5 hours instead of six.

Service between Juneau, Haines and Skagway in the winter would expand from the current schedule of two or three runs a week, Edwards said. The ferries operate daily in the summertime.

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles is backing the bond initiative, which takes advantage of a recently created federal mechanism that allows full bond funding for projects ahead of the usual schedule of annual federal allocations.

The $350 million proposal does not address the longstanding issue of whether a road should be built to access the state's capital.

Although Knowles did not rule out the possibility of a road to Juneau "sometime in the future," he said the $240 million in federal funds needed for the 65-mile road, plus the $22 million state match, "would preclude other important statewide and southeast [Alaska] projects."

During the past five years, the state has invested more than $2 billion in Alaska's roads, airports, marine highway, harbors and trails.

The state recently awarded recreational trail grants, ranging from $1,800 to $30,000, to communities and organizations across the state.

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