The people of coastal Alaska have spoken: Even though ferry ridership is down, and even though costs keep rising, the people want ferries.
They also want the rest of Alaska to pay for them, no matter what the cost is.
Many who testified at a House committee on Tuesday proposed an income tax or cutting the Permanent Fund dividend on all Alaskans, so that the ferry users, a rapidly dwindling constituency, can maintain their subsidies. Several who testified were ferry workers who say that ferries are the lifeline to communities.
By the hundreds, they pleaded for more funding, not less, during a long public testimony hearing in the House Transportation Committee, where nearly 300 people spoke, hardly any in favor of less ferry service.
The governor’s budget shows a 75 percent cut in the subsidy to the ferry system, which would mean users would have to pay for their own fares, or the system would be dramatically reduced. As proposed, the funding would get the ferry system through the first quarter of the 2020 fiscal year, or until October.
The budget proposal was laid down so that Alaskans would finally have the discussion, said Donna Arduin, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, who spoke to the First Things First group in Juneau this morning. The ferry system needs to be changed, she said. It’s something that most Alaskan policymakers know, and this budget has forced the discussion to finally occur at every level.
That’s not the narrative being offered by the mainstream media or ferry advocates. What they’re saying, such as in this Los Angeles Times article, is that Alaska’s “cherished” ferry system is being dismantled.
Unstated in the articles is that it’s only on the chopping block if Alaskans refuse to pay their own fares. If they want the State to pay their fares, the system will probably just be sold off or reformed in a major way after October. It’ can’t go on this way, even if the Inland Boatman’s Union wants it to.
PAYING YOUR FARE SHARE
Some 72,876 people live in Southeast Alaska, a region that stretches from Ketchikan to Yakutat. About 45 percent of those people are Juneau residents.
The population of the region is dropping. After the 2020 Census, Southeast Alaska will likely lose one half of a House seat, which means political districts will shift up the coast. By 2045, the State Department of Labor projects there will be just 68,010 residents in the Southeast region, while the entire state will grow by 100,000 people to 837,806.
Paying your own way on the ferry is a new concept for coastal communities, where state subsidies have covered most of the cost of the rides that Alaskans and visitors take to and from roadless communities.
For ferry riders from other places around the world, an Alaska ferry is a cheap form of tourism because the State of Alaska pays over 200 percent of the cost of that trip from Bellingham to Juneau, Haines, or Skagway. Those travelers could pay more, but don’t, at the expense of Alaska, which could redirect that subsidy to other state programs.
Ending the subsidy means someone going from Juneau to Gustavus by ferry wouldn’t pay the $61 fare. He or she would pay $190 for that one-way Costco run, or $380 round trip.
Long ago, before most Alaskans here today were even alive, Alaskans used to pay for their own transportation between coastal communities. The Alaskan Steamship Company ran through Southeast until the state-subsidized ferry system went online with the Malaspina in the early 1960s, and beat the private sector on both price and schedule, putting the company out of business.
But Alaskans don’t use the ferry system as much as they used to. For Sitka, traffic has dropped by more than a third, and the rest of the system usage is down by at least 15 percent, on a steady decline. The reason is because of the comparable cost of travel — it’s just cheaper to fly from Juneau to Sitka than it is to take the ferry. Now, it’s the private sector options that have made ferry travel less appealing.
For far-flung communities in the Aleutians, people mainly substitute the ferry system for barge transportation when moving cars, trucks, and heavy equipment to places where roads will never be built. It’s just cheaper to move a vehicle on the ferry, because the State is paying for most of it.
Most of the ferry routes now are running about half empty, but those empty vessels are pushing water, and the cost to the state is $4.78 per mile per car on board, whereas the state subsidizes road travel at only 2 cents per mile, per vehicle.
What’s the carbon footprint for ferries that run half empty? Each large ferry burns between 3,000 gallons and 5,000 gallons of diesel per day when in use.
THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES TO FERRIES
Some communities could be connected by road to shorter ferry routes.
Kake, for example, could have had a road by now to nearby Petersburg. But that road project was killed by the former administration of Gov. Bill Walker.
If that road had been built, it’s possible that the air ambulance plane that crashed on approach to Kake on Jan. 29 would not have been trying to make that landing. The Kake patient could have been taken to Peterburg, where there is a medical facility and a large airport.
The Juneau Access project, which would have taken the Juneau road to Katzehin on the other side of Berners Bay and a 45-minute ferry crossing, was also axed by Walker. These were projects that would have reduced transportation costs dramatically for several communities.
The discussion continues, but at least at the legislative hearing, it was loud and clear that ferry communities do not support reducing their services.