Should the Upper Lynn Canal run its own ferry authority?

A passenger on the deck of an Alaska Marine Highway ferry. (Flickr Creative Commons – supafly)
A passenger on the deck of an Alaska Marine Highway ferry. (Flickr Creative Commons – supafly)

Could Haines, Skagway and Juneau run their own Lynn Canal Ferry Authority? With budget cuts and reduced service to the Alaska Marine Highway, leaders from Skagway and Haines are considering that idea.

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Skagway Mayor Mark Schaefer and Haines Mayor Jan Hill recently met with Alaska Marine Highway Deputy Commissioner Mike Neussl to gauge his opinion. Now, they’re hoping to commission a study determining whether a locally-run ferry authority is feasible.

A Lynn Canal Ferry Authority is just an idea right now. But Schaefer and Hill say it’s time to take it seriously.

“All we’re looking at is more cuts and boats being laid up,” Schaefer said.

“We’re concerned. We need our ferries,” said Hill.

The Alaska Marine Highway is facing a deep budget cuts from the state. In the proposed schedule for next summer, the marine highway would tie up two fast ferries and the Malaspina and Taku, slashing the number of port calls throughout coastal communities.

Bart Henderson is a Haines resident who was part of a group that explored the idea of the local ferry authority about 15 years ago.

“Looking at next year’s schedule and how bleak it looks, it’s just obvious that there needs to be some major changes made, some way, somehow,” Henderson said. “And I think all options are on the table.”

Henderson, the Haines and Skagway mayors and Skagway resident Jan Wrentmore, met with the ferry system chief Neussl.

“The economic times that the state finds themselves in and the marine highway system finds ourselves in, make it prone that something like this might make sense now,” Neussl said. “And it deserves a look and an analysis.”

Neussl says it’s too soon to say whether the state would be supportive of the ferry authority. But he says, if it provides more efficient transportation for Alaskans, he would be for it. Henderson thinks it has great potential to be more efficient.

“A ferry authority would have the ability to start from scratch and design its schedule and routes and times and capacities around the actual demand of when people want to travel,” he said.

Henderson says the Alaska Marine Highway is burdened with high costs from large vessels that run at less than full capacity in the winter. He thinks a Lynn Canal Ferry Authority could have smaller vessels that run multiple departures during the summer and then pare down service in the winter as demand drops.

Hill says she wants to work with the state in exploring this possibility.

“If this is gonna work at all, we would be working hand and hand with the Alaska Marine Highway system,” she said. “We’re not trying to alienate ourselves. We’re trying to make something work and coordinate with the current marine highway system.”

They have a model to work from. The Inter-Island Ferry Authority offers service between Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan. The IFA is run by a municipal port authority and governed by a  board of directors made up of Price of Wales Island and Wrangell representatives.

Skagway Mayor Schaefer says the next step is to commission a feasibility study. He has directed the local ad hoc marine highway committee to look into that.

“Hopefully we can find some answers, I think it’s worth taking a look at, really,” Scheafer said. “Let’s explore this.”

For Henderson, it’s exciting to see an idea he’s supported for years resurrected.

“For a long time now I’ve thought that there is a possibility that the Lynn Canal could have much better service at a much lower cost if it was operated on its own.”