Proposed winter schedule leaves long gaps in Southeast ferry service

The Alaska Marine Highway System’s proposed winter schedule, released late on Tuesday, projects long gaps between ferries over a seven-month period.  Southeast towns like Sitka, Wrangell and Petersburg would see ships infrequently, while Kodiak Island and some Southcentral communities could see improved service.

A large blue boat as seen from a dock toweards the bow
The 280-foot Hubbard tied up in Ketchikan on January 29, 2021. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

From October through the end of April, the state-run ferry system will have at most five ships running at any one time. And one of those vessels shuttles between Ketchikan and Metlakatla leaving at most four ships to provide regional service across coastal Alaska.

“It’s disappointing to see such gaps still, for so many communities,” said Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, a regional civic and business organization. “There’s apparently no service to a number of the village communities for a great length of time. “

Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman Andy Mills says the draft winter schedule reflects the best the state can do given the available funding and the maintenance needs of the ships being overhauled.

We do our best to juggle all of the considerations when it comes to formulating the schedule,” Mills said Wednesday.

Gov. Dunleavy reduced ferry operating budget

The ferry system will have around $54 million in state funding to operate over the next 18 months. Add a one-time infusion of about $72 million in federal relief dollars, and transportation officials say that’s allowed the system to be forward funded through the end of 2022.

But it’s still not as much as the Legislature would have liked. Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed nearly $8.5 million of the state appropriation which trimmed the marine highway’s operating budget.

But House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, says the final amount of state funding isn’t set in stone as lawmakers will be meeting next month in a special session to consider their options.

We’re still working with the governor and there were a lot of vetoes that need to be addressed,” House Speaker Louise Stutes told CoastAlaska in a phone interview. “And so, you know, I’m an optimist.”

It takes a three-quarters vote to override a veto but with the fate of the Permanent Fund dividend check and other considerations in play, a lot will be on the table when lawmakers return to Juneau.

But overall she says she’s pleased with the schedule. That’s because Kodiak Island and Prince William Sound communities have shorter service gaps compared to last year.

“We went long periods with no ferries,” Stutes said Wednesday. “And so I think that they’re just trying to make it a little more spread out. And some communities are getting a little more and some are getting a little less.”

Ketchikan-built Hubbard to be equipped with crew quarters

Another bright spot is that one of the Alaska Class Ferries will be modified to extend its service range. The $60 million Hubbard has yet to enter service since being completed last year. It’s going in for crew quarters on November 1.

It’s a roughly $20 million modification passed by lawmakers but axed by Gov. Dunleavy during last year’s round of line-item vetoes.

Coast Guard regulations limit a crew member’s working hours to no more than 12 hours. That’ll extend its service range by allowing space for relief crew members on board the vessel.

But as was the case last year, neither of the two Alaska Class Ferries will be on the board. The Tazlina and Hubbard will both either be in layup, undergoing modifications or being overhauled. And the largest ship in the marine highway’s fleet, the Columbia, continues to be idled as a cost-savings measure.

A public teleconference to hear additional comments and consider adjustments is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday, July 29 for Southeast schedules. A teleconference for Southwest and Southcentral routes will follow at 1:30 p.m. The meetings will be held at the Alaska Marine Highway System’s Ketchikan headquarters at 7559 North Tongass Highway, for participants wishing to attend in person. The toll-free number for joining both teleconferences is: 1-515-604-9000, access code 279613.

Written comments are being accepted through July 27 via email at dot.amhs.comments@alaska.gov.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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