Ramp failure halts Whittier ferry service
By Ken Smith
A temporary fix could allow ferry service to restart in mid-October or early November in Whittier.
Since Aug. 30, the Alaska Marine Highway stopped its ferry service to Whittier due to a mechanical failure of the dock’s ramp. The Chenega fast ferry that serves the communities of Prince William Sound has been rerouted and continues operations between Cordova and Valdez.
The Whittier dock is fitted with a specialized floating ramp that accommodates the unique design of the catamaran-style hull of the Chenega as well as accommodating the mono-hull Aurora ferry, which stopped running to Whittier Aug. 16.
“An electrician worked on electrical wiring that had a failure that turned into a mechanical failure,” said Jeremy Woodrow, communications director for the Alaska Department of Transportation. “One item led to another item breaking down. It’s going to be out for a few more weeks.”
The timing of the ramp failure happened at the tail end of the tourist season and near the end of the fishing season, leaving travelers from Valdez and Cordova scrambling for an alternative route back to Anchorage or other destination points from Whittier. The city is only about 60 miles from Anchorage compared to Valdez, which is a little over 300 miles away.
“What’s going on with the ramp is that we had a contractor doing electrical work on it and that led to major mechanical failure of the gears that lower and raise it, which was severely damaged and made the ramp inoperable and unsafe to go up to it at this time. Right now we’re working on a temporary solution, and it may be available in early November.”
The Aurora is expected to be online in the middle of October utilizing a private dock near the ferry terminal. A temporary fix of the failed ramp may be completed in November.
The Aurora serves Whittier for most of the summer, but when the ridership dissipates near the end of the season, it is relocated to southeast. It is currently filling in for the LeConte, which is undergoing an annual overhaul.
“We may be able to go into Whittier beforehand if we can figure out the logistics of utilizing a private dock,” said Woodrow. “If we can, then we may be able to bring in the Aurora. Because of the way it’s shaped, it may be able to dock, depending on tides.”
The people most affected by the loss of Whittier’s ferry terminal are from Valdez and Cordova who are using the westernmost port of Prince William Sound as a through point.
“It makes the trip much longer for driving miles and that’s why we’re trying to get a temporary solution to fix that link and have people have a shorter drive in the winter,” said Woodrow.
As for the damaged ramp, the long-term fix won’t take place until next spring. “The parts are custom made and just getting them and getting them to Whittier and doing work in the winter is difficult,” Woodrow said. “Right now we’re working on a solution that we can get the ramp to lower and raise slowly or fix it to work at certain tide level twice a day. This is a fairly unusual event to happen when a ramp breaks down; it really shuts off a leg of the system, but this is really unusual for a ramp to be the cause, and not a problem with the ferry.”