Alaska’s ferry system debuts a winter season with fewer trips and higher prices

It’ll be a lean winter for state ferries as the system reduces service across the board. That’s following aggressive cost-cutting by lawmakers —  they cut the budget by $43.6 million dollars rather than risk losing it altogether.

The MV LeConte, an Alaska state ferry, sits at the dock in the Southeast village of Angoon on Thursday, March 28, 2019. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Alaska Marine Highway System, or AMHS, opened booking for its winter schedule on Thursday, but with fewer sailings and a new pricing system.

“We had to cut everywhere,” said State Department of Transportation spokesperson Meadow Bailey.  “So, it’s not a decision to cut one route versus another. It’s a decision across the board when we had to reduce our service by one-third because we just don’t have, we don’t have funding.”

Some communities will feel the effects more than others: After September, there are no sailings at all for the Prince William Sound communities of Valdez and Cordova for six months.

There are no changes to the draft schedule AMHS published in July despite public testimony from communities that face being cut off for months. For those who still have the option to travel by ferry, it is likely to be more expensive. The marine highway is rolling out what it calls dynamic pricing.

“This is really similar to what you would see, like, on an airlines. You know, around dates and times when there is high demand — tickets, those prices increase,” Bailey said.

That means passenger fares could climb by as much as 30%. A passenger going from Haines to Bellingham, Washington can expect a base fare of about $500. But that could increase to nearly $650 if the ship fills up. Vehicle and cabin rates could rise as much as 50% on heavily booked sailings.

Unlike airlines, the ferry system doesn’t have competition from other passenger liners.

The system is also instituting an increase in change fees–fees will increase for changes or cancellations close to travel dates. And fares will increase 10% for the days preceding and after special events.

“This is unprecedented as far as I know,” said Robert Venables. He heads the Marine Transportation Advisory Board and Southeast Conference–a regional economic forum. He pulls double duty as the system’s head cheerleader and a critic advocating reform.

“Even back in the early days of the system there was more service than this,” he said.

He acknowledges the financial challenges, but says the ferry is critical infrastructure that many small communities can’t do without.

“There are some communities especially in Prince William Sound where they are going many months without any service at all and that is crushing to their economy,” he said.

He said he’s especially concerned about Cordova which has no road out.