- Associated Press - Saturday, December 13, 2014

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) - Gov. Bill Walker was on hand Saturday to mark the official start of construction of two new Alaska Class Ferries.

The state Department of Transportation conducted a Laying of the Keels ceremony at Vigor Alaska’s Ketchikan Shipyard to mark the official start of construction.

“This is a historical moment for Alaska,” said Jeremy Woodrow, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities. “These will be the first state ferries ever built in the state of Alaska and used by the state of Alaska.”

Once complete, the ferries will be the largest vessels ever built in Alaska, Woodrow said.

The boats will ferry passengers and vehicles throughout southeast Alaska once they are completed. Vigor Alaska expects to deliver the two boats in 2018.

At the ceremony, Alaska’s first lady Donna Walker ceremoniously welded her initials into the keel of the boat, a maritime tradition that identifies her as the sponsor of the boat, Woodrow said. Once construction is complete, she’ll break a champagne bottle over the bow to christen the vessel, he added.

The ferries in the state marine highway system are aging, and the state began planning for a new Alaska Class Ferry.

But in 2012, citing cost overruns, then-Gov. Sean Parnell canceled the plans for the larger Alaska Class Ferry, which had a design for a 350-foot boat, in favor of smaller boats.

He ordered a new, smaller design for the Alaska Class Ferry and limited the budget to $120 million for two 280-foot boats. The two boats will be steel-hulled, twin-screw, diesel-powered passenger and vehicle ferries.

At the time, Parnell also said his goal was to have “Alaskans build Alaska’s ferries in Alaska.”

Vigor Alaska said it could hire up to 150 shipyard workers on the Ketchikan project.

“This will add four years of maritime workforce to Ketchikan Alaska,” Woodrow said. “They’ll be working year-round.”

The company already employs 2,300 people at nine locations in Alaska, Washington state and Oregon.

Besides building these two new ferries, Vigor Alaska is performing work on two other Alaska ferries, the Kennicott and the LeConte.

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