Southeast Pleas For Restored Ferry Service; AHMS Skeptical, Citing Dwindling Coffers

The ferry Taku sails into the Wrangell Narrows on its way south in 2013. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
The ferry Taku sails into the Wrangell Narrows on its way south in 2013. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Southeast Alaska community leaders hope to restore or adjust some parts of the proposed ferry schedule for this fall, winter and spring. That’s the word from most of those testifying Wednesday morning during a teleconferenced Alaska Marine Highway System public hearing.

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The draft ferry schedule reflects budget cuts by the Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker.

It proposes tying up the ferry Taku, which has been docked since July 1st, for the entire year. Its replacement will sail half as often to and from Prince Rupert, British Columbia’s northernmost port.

Assistant Ketchikan Borough Manager Deanna Garrison says that will hurt regional fisheries.

“This has resulted in a significant reduction of service in Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg. Specifically, losing the Taku is problematic for Ketchikan fish processors. It’s faster for processers to place a product on the ferry to Prince Rupert and truck seafood to the Lower 48,” Garrison says.

The schedule, released last month, also lays up the fast ferries Chenega and Fairweather, beginning in the early fall.

Five small communities will have no service for a month in the winter and larger cities will see reduced sailings overall.

Sitka teacher and coach Jeremy Strong says the cuts will hurt teams traveling to and from out-of-town games.

“If we’re cut out completely through the spring into Juneau, where we can meet up with a lot of the other mainliners …, then our season looks a lot more bleak. And we’ll get a lot less kids to be able to have those opportunities.”

Others worry about fewer tourists, especially in towns where ferries bring independent travelers.

Haines Borough Mayor Jan Hill says fewer and less reliable sailings have already hurt her community, where the mainland highway system connects to the ferries.

“Several caravans of motor homes canceled their trips to Haines this summer. And some aren’t going to make any reservations for next year. And so, that’s a huge hit to those businesses that those caravans support when they’re in our communities.”

The Legislature planned to begin deep ferry cuts this summer, which made the whole schedule uncertain.

Leftover funds from the previous year allowed most summer sailings to continue, through vessel breakdowns and the Taku tie-up cut some runs.

Wrangell Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore says the schedule has to be more reliable so travelers – and the tourism industry — can make plans.

“So if there’s some way that DOT can address that in the coming months to be prepared for next summer so our visitors know what they can and can’t do ahead of time and we’re not devastating our communities in the middle of that.”

Ferry officials say they’re taking all suggestions seriously. But there just isn’t enough money to meet most of the requests.

Deputy Commissioner Mike Neussl says the situation is unlikely to improve, since there won’t be any leftover money.

“I just want to set the stage that fiscal fear ‘17 likely will not have that same relief pot available. And there’s every indication that further cuts to the system and to the state government as a whole are likely.”

That’s unless the price of oil, which fuels the state budget, increases. Analysts say that’s unlikely to happen.

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Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska - Juneau
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.