Alaska ferry system faces uncertain future amid budget cut proposals


Untouched wilderness on untouched wilderness.

The Alaska Marine Highway System is, in some places, the only way to get from Point A to Point B in the nation’s largest state.

The Last Frontier’s fleet of ferries are a lifeline in areas where the roads end at the water, providing transport for locals to neighboring cities and bringing visitors to the touristy towns along 3,500 miles of scenic coastline.

While locals say the ferry system is critical to commerce and infrastructure, Alaska’s mounting budget deficit has led newly elected Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy to propose a massive budget cut that could dramatically alter its services or lead to its privatization.

“The villages, the small communities and the islands would be in a lot of trouble without that state-funded, state-supported highway system,” said Jim Hunt, city manager of Whittier, about 60 miles southeast of Anchorage.

The system hasn’t scheduled trips past Oct. 1, a spokesperson said, as Dunleavy looks to slash its budget by $97 million to address a projected $1.6 billion shortfall due to declining oil production.

In Whittier, Hunt told USA TODAY the town’s 220 residents count on the state ferry to bring in tourists. Travelers also come on cruise ships or by train or car through a tunnel that closes at night and only goes one way at a time, but Hunt said the ferry is essential. Whittier’s residents also ride the state ferry to islands in the Prince William Sound at preferential rates compared to flights, Hunt said, sometimes to see family or compete in sports events. 

More remote communities further depend on the state ferry to ship food and heavy equipment, the Juneau Empire reported. Residents might also take the ferry for health care services in bigger cities. In 2015, the state ferry transported about 290,000 people and 100,000 vehicles, according to the system’s latest traffic report

Robb Arnold, a member of one the unions representing ferry system workers, told the Empire union workers are pushing against the cuts that may cause the ferry to run seasonally instead of year-round. 

“If they shut down a highway up north for six months, could you imagine the public outcry?” Arnold told the Empire. “It’s not a normal state. If you take part of the system away, the rest of the system will not work.”

Only five of Alaska’s 33 ferry terminals are connected to a road system. The marine highway also connects the state to Bellingham, Washington, and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. 

But as the state has burned through $14 billion in savings over the last four years, the governor’s office cited the need to spend more efficiently in a statement emailed to USA TODAY. A consultant will help determine how to change the marine highway system, said press secretary Matthew Shuckerow, perhaps through a public-private partnership. 

“The ongoing trend of a less than 35 percent fare box recovery rate coupled with low passenger and vehicle ridership has contributed to making the AMHS an increasingly expensive system to operate,” Shuckerow said. “AMHS will move towards other service options to realize short and long-term cost savings for state government and to promote economic growth in affected regions of the state.”

No vessels will run from October 2019 through June 2020 under the governor’s budget proposal.

The state ferry is “absolutely critical” to commerce throughout southeast Alaska especially, Sean Gaffney, a board member of the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation in Haines, told USA TODAY.

In the borough of Haines, about 70 miles north of Juneau, Gaffney said the system transports goods and brings in visitors to local businesses. 

Employees at Gaffney’s business, Alaska Mountain Guides and Mountain Guides International, also recommend clients take the state ferry to get around the region since flights are subject to the area’s often-harsh weather conditions.

Personally, Gaffney said he has taken the state ferry to Juneau once a week or more this winter – both for business and to see friends.

While the ferry system has faced repeated cuts in recent years, Gaffney said he hopes the state’s Legislature can maintain its service as much as possible.

“Any uncertainty in the scheduling only leads to further decreases in ridership,” Gaffney said. “And I would hope that they’re able to move through the process of finalizing the budget as quickly as possible.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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