Southeast Alaska supply chains breaking down as ferry service gap enters second week

Pelican’s boat harbor in 2013. The community of around 80 in the winter has no airport or barge service. (KCAW file photo)

As the partial ferry shutdown enters its second week in Southeast Alaska, small communities are trying to find alternative means of bringing groceries and other essentials to their residents.

And Southeast lawmakers continue to press the Dunleavy administration to restore service to four communities abruptly cut off when their ferries were indefinitely laid up for repairs.

Pelican is a city with less than 100 people on Chichagof Island. It’s been two weeks since the Alaska Marine Highway abruptly announced there’d be no ferries for the foreseeable future.

Read more coverage of the ferry system and ferry service disruptions this year.

Pelican Mayor Walt Weller says he’s been on the phone with state officials, chamber groups and legislators.

“I’ve been communicating with everybody that will listen and a few people that won’t,” Weller told CoastAlaska on Wednesday.

Pelican has no airport or barge service. The only link is daily service to Juneau via seaplane. But that’s not economical to bring building supplies let alone a household’s food.

A salmon troller has been pressed into service.

“We have already started having one of the local fishing boats go back and forth to Juneau which to keep our supply chain open,” Weller said. “He can’t transport people on it of course and it takes 12 to 14 hours for a fishing boat to make that trip.”

There’s a Juneau-based freight company that normally supplies the town. J&S Freight is run by husband and wife Greg and Donica Jerue.

“We have a massive fleet of four trucks. But we do fill them almost every ferry,” Greg Jerue said.

“You know, we’re the grocery store, we’re the hardware store we’re whatever they need,” Donica Jerue added.

But J&S too uses the ferries. So after 18 years, its trucks are parked empty in Juneau.

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)

It’s not just Pelican. The communities of Angoon, Gustavus, and Tenakee Springs are cut off. And larger towns like Hoonah, Kake, Haines, and Skagway have seen service reduced this winter.

That’s all after the state balked at repairing the ferry LeConte, when it learned that a scheduled overhaul would cost $4 million more than budgeted.

two-page letter penned Nov. 11 by Southeast legislators rejects that reasoning.

“This is not a valid reason to hamstring these communities and the administration has the tools to solve the problem. There is funding available — $20 million was set aside in an earlier budget for just this type of situation,” the letter says.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka) says the fallout is very real.

“We’re talking about sort of barely post-statehood levels of transportation infrastructure and it’s like going back in time,” he said Wednesday. “I mean, we can we can advocate and attempt to appropriate money. Sometimes our appropriations are vetoed, but it’s in the hands of the executive branch and they run the ferry system.”

He’s among five Southeast lawmakers who signed the letter. The only name from Southeast not included is Sen. Bert Stedman (R-Sitka).

Rep. Dan Ortiz (I-Ketchikan) says the state is letting an expensive maintenance issue be used to justify cutting off entire communities.

“Our main mode of travel and our main transportation infrastructure is in jeopardy,” he said Wednesday.

Lawmakers — and even local governments — have urged the state to bring the Alaska Class Ferries into service. The ferry Tazlina briefly sailed this spring but it and its sister ship are due to have side doors installed this winter.

Back in Pelican, Weller says the city is trying to figure out how to solve a looming problem with its sewer plant that’s due for a pump out.

“What I’ve done the last couple years is bring two or three trucks out on a ferry to pump down our system so that we can maintain it correctly and not pollute the local waters,” Weller said. “And without a ferry, I don’t know how I’m going to do that.”

Transportation officials say the Alaska Marine Highway System has no new information on its plans for the Alaska Class Ferries.

“AMHS is presently reviewing options to restore some service to the northern panhandle,” DOT spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said in a written statement. “The AMHS operations are complex and changes require a thorough assessment of staff and resources.”

The agency has previous said an update on the repair schedule is expected Friday, Nov. 15.

Correction: State officials say repair estimates for the ferry LeConte came in $4 million over budget, not $2.8 million as previously reported. This story has been updated.