Alaska Ferry Rates Rising For Commercial Customers

Three ferries tied up at the Ketchikan Shipyard in the winter of 2012. Commercial users will likely pay higher rates beginning next winter. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
Three ferries tied up at the Ketchikan Shipyard in the winter of 2012. Commercial users will likely pay higher rates beginning next winter. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

You’ve probably heard that state ferry fares are going up in May. The Alaska Marine Highway System also plans to increase commercial rates later this year.

State officials say it costs too much to run the system.

Rising expenses and decreasing state revenues are leading to a 4.5 percent fare increase that will hit most travelers in May. Legislative budget-writers boosted it to 9 percent, though the extra charges will happen later.

Department of Transportation officials are now considering larger increases for commercial customers, those moving trucks and container vans via ferry.

Commissioner Marc Luiken cites a new analysis of charges.

“The study made it very apparent that the commercial rates aboard the marine highway system are considerably lower than comparable ferry systems around the United States and the world. The role of government is not to compete with private industry, but to support it,” he says.

The study, by Anchorage-based Northern Economics, says other ferry systems charge commercial vehicles 60 to 120 percent more than passenger rates. It recommends the ferry system do the same, though not all at once.

Officials say the increases will help, but not solve, the marine highway’s budget problems.

“I think the system needs to raise rates. Nobody likes to pay more. But I’d just be happy if I could use the ferry,” says Petersburg’s Dave Kensinger, co-owner of Chelan Produce.

The company sells Pacific Northwest fruit and vegetables in Southeast communities out of a truck. He’s also represented commercial users on the state’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

He says the issue isn’t cost, it’s the schedule.

“Twenty years ago, in the course of our business between my wife and I, we got on the ferry 100 times a year. This year, with what I believe are the proposed cuts to ferry service, I think I’m going to get on the ferry twice,” he says.

Calls to barge companies serving ferry port communities were not immediately returned.

Transportation Commissioner Luiken, speaking to the Southeast Conference, says increases will be considered as part of next winter’s ferry schedule.

He says higher ferry rates are part of a larger look at his agency’s regional costs.

“I can tell you the long-term transportation outlook for Southeast Alaska is going to be impacted by what can be responsibly done and what is sustainable over time,” he says.

The legislatively mandated fare increase must still make it through the state Senate and the governor’s office. If it does, it’s expected to be in place for the winter season.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.