Study examines possibilities for locally controlled Northern Lynn Canal ferry service

An Alaska Marine Highway ferry docked in Skagway. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

As the Alaska Marine Highway System faces a reduced budget and limited sailings, the Municipality of Skagway is looking at ways to maintain ferry service for the Upper Lynn Canal. Last week, the Mcdowell Group completed a study for the city that examines the possibilities for developing a locally controlled ferry system.

The McDowell Group’s latest study for Skagway explores management options and discusses the challenges and opportunities for a Northern Lynn Canal ferry service.

Jim Calvin was the project manager for the study. He says if Skagway wanted to pursue an independent ferry service it should be operated by a port authority.

“It’s a public corporation that would be governed by a board of directors that include representatives of whatever stakeholder communities are part of the organization,” Calvin says. “It operates independently financially and operationally from the local government or governments that create it.”

Calvin says the port authority model makes the system accountable to the public and opens the door for state and federal subsidies. 

He says it is not realistic to provide an adequate level of service for the Upper Lynn Canal without public funding, and a for-profit service wouldn’t have access to that support. 

Calvin points to the Interisland Ferry Authority as an example of the kind of system that could work for the Upper Lynn Canal. The IFA is guided by a board with representatives from each of the communities it serves.

“You know the relationship between the communities that create the authority and how the authority operates I think it serves as a good model in that respect. It serves as a good model in understanding access to federal funding and perhaps state funding,” Calvin says.

The study describes the process to establish a ferry service managed by a local port authority. First, municipalities served by the ferry would need to pass ordinances and receive voter approval. Then the state would need to pass a law approving it. Finally, the port authority would need to establish a board of directors and hire an executive director to manage the system.

While the study focuses on governance and management of a local ferry authority, there are numerous other questions about how to create a ferry service. For example, where would they get the ships? 

“There isn’t the money available to construct new vessels so a question has become where might those vessels come from and if there were to be a ferry authority developed in Lynn Canal where might the authority secure access ownership or control of the vessels they need to provide that service.”

The study suggests that a local ferry authority might consider acquiring the Alaska Class Ferries, two vessels that were built by the Alaska Marine Highway System to serve Haines, Skagway, and Juneau. 

Now it’s up to the Municipality of Skagway to decide if this is an idea worth pursuing.