On both sides of the border, officials chafe over looming end to Prince Rupert ferry link

Efforts to keep Southeast Alaska’s ferry link with British Columbia online continue as officials on both sides of the border express frustration over U.S. customs insistence on armed security inside the Canadian ferry terminal.

Prince Rupert, B.C. is the shortest mainland road connection for Southeast Alaska communities. (Map courtesy AMHS)

In a statement released Thursday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection acknowledged that its agents have been routinely inspecting Alaska-bound ferries for years.

“In order to reduce security risks to the U.S, and provide safety for the traveling public and unarmed CBP officers, CBP determined that an armed law enforcement presence would be a requirement while CBP conducts its operations at Prince Rupert,” the agency said.

That means the decades long Alaska Marine Highway connection to Prince Rupert, B.C. is slated to shut down.

Addressing the Southeast Conference forum of civic and business leaders Thursday, Alaska’s Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon placed the blame on the feds.

I think in the history of access to Prince Rupert, the only issues that have required law enforcement have been a couple of people that had too much to drink,” MacKinnon quipped.

The new requirements stem from a 2015 agreement signed by the U.S. and Canada to upgrade border security.

People coming to Alaska from Prince Rupert represents a real risk to this country — note the tone, the sarcasm in the voice there,” MacKinnon added.

U.S. customs agents can’t carry guns in Prince Rupert. But Canadian police say they’re stretched too thinly to provide armed backup in the near future. And then there’s the cost: the state of Alaska would be expected to pay for it.

The result is an impasse. An Oct. 1 deadline set by U.S. customs has led the Alaska Marine Highway to cancel all sailings after that date.

Prince Rupert’s city Mayor Lee Brain met with Gov. Dunleavy’s chief of staff and the transportation commissioner to present some alternatives. Brain says Prince Rupert’s leaders have attended Southeast Conference meetings for a half-century or more. About as long as there’s been an Alaska Marine Highway.

“And now that we’re at this point of a kind of a crucial hour in the ferry service,” Brain told CoastAlaska, “it’s more important for us to continually come up here and ensure that people realize how important those ferry services to Prince Rupert and our residents, as well as to the local economy.”

He says he’s presented some proposals — the details of which he hasn’t shared publicly — designed to satisfy U.S. security requirements and keep ferries running

If we can figure out some of these federal kind of border protection issues, we may be able to see reinstatement of the winter schedule as soon as hopefully the next three weeks to a month,” Brain said.

Coastal communities throughout the panhandle are grappling with reduced service due to budget cuts. At one point in the budget cut discussion the Dunleavy administration proposed eliminating all service to Prince Rupert.

But MacKinnon told CoastAlaska that service to B.C. is a priority — something he’s assured officials from Prince Rupert.

“You know, and that’s what the mayor and I have committed to work on and do that and (the governor’s chief of staff) Ben Stevens — the administration is on board,” he said in a brief interview.

The ability of U.S. customs agents to demand armed protection is only one of myriad requirements the Department of Homeland Security seeks to upgrade the border.

To that point, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a recorded address to Southeast Conference says there will be other issues to work through to keep the ferry connection to Canada.

We may be able to secure the law enforcement resources that are necessary to open the port,” she said in taped video remarks. “But we will need to start towards significant investment in new clearance facilities either in Ketchikan or Prince Rupert.”

As it stands, the last ferries in and out of Prince Rupert are slated to sail on Sept. 30.