Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Sitka
Alaska’s ferry chief is retiring. Jim Beedle will leave his job as Department of Transportation deputy commissioner for marine operations at the end of December.
Beedle started his ferry career in 1973, taking a summer job during college. He went full-time in 1975 and worked his way up to chief purser, first on the LeConte and then on the Malaspina.
He moved into marine highway headquarters about six years ago, as operations manager, before running the system for the past two and a half years.
After nearly four decades with the ferries, he says it’s time to do something else.
“I love Alaska, I love the marine highway system, I love the outdoors. And I really want to get back to spending more time doing what I want to do, which is being outdoors and enjoying the beauty of the state we live in,” he says.
He made his decision to retire public Monday and says he was not pressured to leave.
Beedle came into the job after a period of change – what some call turmoil. Ridership had dropped, new fast ferries developed engine problems, routes fluctuated, and fuel prices rose.
But in the past few years, schedules have stabilized and ridership has gone up.
Marine Transportation Advisory Board Chairman Mike Korsmo of Skagway says Beedle helped rebuild public confidence.
“I think the system, over the last few years, has finally settled back down into being a pretty efficient, good system again and I think Jim has been a huge part of that. I’m really going to be sad to see him go. He’s going to be hard to replace,” he says.
The advisory board had been part of the earlier turbulence, in part because some members felt ignored.
Member Gerry Hope of Sitka says Beedle kept panel members in the loop, so they could make informed decisions.
“He’s just been a real valuable connection for the board to the actual service that’s being provided. So he will really be missed,” he says.
Beedle informed outgoing commissioner Leo von Scheben and Governor Sean Parnell of his retirement plans a few weeks ago.
His replacement will be chosen by the new Transportation Commissioner, Mark Luiken, who moves up from the job of deputy commissioner for aviation. The advisory board will review the appointee, and the governor will have the final say.
A former advisory board chairman, Dave Kensinger of Petersburg, says the new ferry chief will face many of the same problems as Beedle.
“My concern with the system, and I know Jim’s, is the rising costs. Every year everything gets more expensive and the vessels get older. It’s kind of reaching the breaking point,” he says.
Other than continuing funding, the system’s next big challenge is construction of the first Alaska Class Ferry.
The ship, built for mostly shorter, daytime runs, was supposed to go out to bid this year. That was held up when the federal government withdrew about half the funding needed for the $120-million-plus-dollar vessel.
Beedle says it’s still worth pursuing.
“I think we’ve done a very good, complete job of designing what the people need. We’re building a ship that will provide reliable service and doing it in as cost-effective as we can. My opinion is that boat needs to be built. And however they go about doing that, they just need to build the boat,” he says.
The first Alaska Class Ferry is supposed to take over the Lynn Canal route, connecting Juneau, Haines and Skagway. Future ships could sail in southern Southeast and Prince William Sound.
Download Audio (MP3)