Wrangell left high and dry by sparse winter ferry schedule

An empty ferry terminal on a foggy day with mountains in the background
Wrangell’s empty ferry terminal (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

A dwindling ferry schedule over the last 10 years has been a source of frustration for many coastal Alaska communities.

In Wrangell, that frustration has been taken to the next level this winter, as the state plans to repeatedly sail the blue and gold ferries within 20 miles of the island town — but only stop twice.

Wrangell’s ferry schedule this winter is sparse. One northbound ferry in November, one southbound ferry in January. No ferries at all in December. But they’ll be nearby.

“The ferry is just going to drive right by,” says Wrangell City Manager Lisa Von Bargen.

She and Wrangell’s Mayor Steve Prysunka are frustrated. For Prysunka, what gets his goat is that the ferries will be so tantalizingly close: sailing through the area at least eight times to and from Petersburg and Ketchikan. 

“We’re talking about a 20 mile diversion,” Prysunka laments. “We’re on the main line. It’s not like you have to go across the gulf, or zip to the outside to get to us and it takes 18 hours round trip. We’re talking 45 minutes to come over to Wrangell, dock, pick some folks up and move along.”

Wrangell’s city government recently put out an economic climate survey. City manager Lisa Von Bargen says there wasn’t a question about the Alaska Marine Highway System, yet more than 40% of local businesses wrote that cuts to ferry service were hurting the local economy. 

“The ferry service or the lack of ferry service is foremost in the minds of our businesses as a critical component to their success,” Von Bargen explained.

She says she’s concerned that the state seems to be ignoring the plight of Southeast communities, adding: “There’s a disaster declaration from Wrangell — and many other communities — sitting on the desk of the governor right now. And we’ve got a state agency who’s cutting service that is critical for our business success here.”

The Alaska Department of Transportation says funding cuts made worse by COVID-19 means less service to communities.

DOT spokesperson Andy Mills wrote in a statement that delays caused by waiting for favorable tides in the Wrangell Narrows means the ferry will save money and time by bypassing Wrangell. 

He also says commercial freight from barges and airline travel were factors in setting the winter schedule to Wrangell and other towns.

For Wrangell’s Mayor Steve Prysunka, that’s a poor explanation. “Quite frankly, it’s B.S., their excuse that they can’t get through Wrangell Narrows because of the tide,” Prysunka said. “They’ve been navigating that forever. I’m willing to loan them a tide book, and I know a bunch of old timers that could help them figure it out.”

He sees the breakdown in ferry service as an entirely unfair cut. Communities on the road system wouldn’t leave roads completely impassable for months on end because of budget shortfalls.

“This is our highway,” he added. “That’s like going up and rolling up the blacktop between Wasilla and Anchorage and saying, ‘Yeah, now we’re gonna take that South with us.’ It just can’t happen. I really don’t think it’s unreasonable what the island communities are requesting: some basic service through the winter.”

Rep. Dan Ortiz has asked DOT for other options. The Ketchikan independent says he suggested another vessel could offer supplemental trips between Petersburg and Wrangell. 

“They got back to me and said, they looked at it, not doable,” Ortiz reported Wednesday. He’s also written to the DOT commissioner about the lack of service. Meanwhile, local officials like Prysunka and Von Bargen say the bypass feels like a slight. 

Prysunka and Von Bargen discussed the issue:

Von Bargen: “At some point, you start feeling like a second class community.”
Prysunka: “We’re starting wonder what we’ve done to get them upset.”
Von Bargen: “Right.”
Prysunka: “We… Are we not doing something right? Is there something in our water? Like, let’s get this sorted out, folks.”
Von Bargen: “If we were conspiracy minded…”
Prysunka: “Which we sort of are but not really…”

State transportation data show a 130% decline in ferry ridership to and from Wrangell between 2010 and 2019. But data analysis commissioned by Wrangell says there’s been fewer sailings, therefore fewer ferries for people to ride. 

Prysunka explained how he sees it as a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: “It’s literally the shopkeeper opening up for an hour a week and saying, I have no customers, you know, if you don’t have reliability and predictability, and I can know that if I go down at four o’clock in the afternoon that shop’s open, if I show up day after day, and it isn’t open, I stop showing up, it’s the same with the ferry system.”

This year’s winter ferry schedule was released after only a week of public input. The state is taking bookings for the two sailings that will reach Wrangell on the Kennicott, which due to COVID-19 is running at a third of its almost 500-person capacity.

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.

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