FERRY SYSTEM IS AN ARTIFACT OF AN EARLY-STATE TRANSPORTATION NEED
By ART CHANCE
I’ve lived both in Anchorage and in Juneau. I’ve ridden the ferry both to go Outside from Anchorage via the Alcan Highway to Haines, and to and from various places in Southeast Alaska. I’ve been on all of them except the M/V Columbia and the old M/V Chilkat, the first one.
I’ve also spent lots of quality time in hearing rooms and across bargaining tables with the three ferry workers’ unions.
I will readily confess that dealing with the ferry unions and the so-called management of the Alaska Marine Highway System is the only thing in my labor relations career that ever caused me to just throw up my hands in surrender. You have a winning combination of totally self-interested and sometimes corrupt unions, complicit “management,” and cowardly and often compromised politicians that causes the ferry system to be run for the comfort, convenience, and compensation of its employees.
The system is an artifact of the Territory and the earliest days of Statehood. 1961, when the ferry system was created, is in the dim mists of time; those few still alive who remember Alaska in those days are living in Palm Springs or some other warm place.
As Must Read Alaska relates, the Alaska Steamship Line had monopoly power in shipping to Alaska.
I’ve known several Alaska political and economic luminaries whose Alaska story began with signing articles as an ordinary seaman on Alaska Steam and jumping ship with the legendary 37 cents in their pocket somewhere in Alaska to go on to become rich, famous, and powerful.
Air travel was slow, erratic, and dangerous, and aircraft of those times had little cargo handling capacity. Southeast Alaska was the province of Pan Am and its subsidiary Pacific Northern, and small regional carriers such as Alaska Coastal. Most aircraft in Southeast were floatplanes or flying boats because there were few airports.
To this day the phrase “Pan Am” weather survives in Southeast to describe a pretty, “blue bird skies” day, because that was the only weather Pan Am and PNA could be relied on to fly in.
In those days, Alaska Airlines was very much an unscheduled operation that worked Seattle to Fairbanks and Anchorage routes and had no penetration in Southeast. The airliners serving Alaska were propeller driven, the biggest and best were the Douglas DC-6 and the Lockheed Constellation, both capable of 300 or so miles per hour. It is a long way from the Lower 48 to Alaska at 300 mph; 3-5 hours to Ketchikan or Juneau, 6 hours or more to Anchorage or Fairbanks.
Most of us have experienced a winter flight north with a 100 mph headwind; think about that in a plane not nearly as capable as a modern jet. In those days, air travel was not really a viable option for most people.
Second only to getting rid of fish traps, getting some independence from the Seattle-based shipping lines was in the minds of Alaska’s founders. The AMHS was started when the State bought a World War II landing craft and named it the M/V Chilkat for use in Southeast.
In the early 1960s, the still cash-strapped State spent the money for the first of the “big” ferries, the Taku Class, including Taku, Malaspina, and Matanuska. The big ferries could take you to Seattle, where Pier 48 became a part of Alaska life.
Later, the blue water capable M/V Tustumena was added, which allowed service to the Gulf, Kodiak, and the Aleutians. We made our pretense at becoming a cruse line with M/V Columbia and M/V Wickersham. The US made us get rid of M/V Wickersham because she wasn’t an American bottom. We still have the M/V Columbia, but she has had a troubled life. Gov. Jay Hammond ended the cruise ship illusion by putting an end to the white-jacketed waiter and linen table cloth service that made our ferries semi-luxurious.
Today, the ferries are, on their good days, Greyhound buses on the water. Even the bars on board are shut down due to not being profitable.
History lesson over. What we have today is a system that is no longer a vital service for anyplace other than the outports of Southeast Alaska, some of the island ports, especially Kodiak, and maybe, just maybe, some service to the Aleutian Chain. Sen. John Torgerson and I did a “back of the matchbook” calculation that concluded we could let anyone with an Alaska drivers license ride free and not need increased funding if we simply stopped the cross-Gulf and Prince Rupert and Bellingham service.
If the Alaska Marine Highway System is to survive, it will be with something like the new “Alaska Class” vessels or with what are called “T-Boats,” small, coastal or near-coastal boats much like the Inter-Island Ferry uses from Ketchikan.
If the people of all of Alaska are to pay for the AMHS, we need to get out of the business of hauling cheap tourists, and moving military and other transferees who are simply gaming their travel and moving allowances. We’ll have to stop hauling snowbirds’ motor homes to Bellingham, or servicing the people with DWI and other criminal convictions who cannot drive through Canada anymore due to those convictions.
Some communities are going to have to confront their greenies and the marine unions who have thwarted every attempt to provide road connections. If Cordova doesn’t have a ferry every day, it might reconsider its opposition to restoring the State-owned Copper River and Northwestern Railroad roadbed so that it could have road access to the rest of Alaska.
As Must Read Alaska points out, the Jan. 29 medical evacuation crash would have never happened had the road been built from Kake to Petersburg (with a short ferry shuttle still required).
The marine unions and the greenies are at the forefront of opposition to all of these roads, and the Juneau road is not only the holy grail for the marine unions and the greenies, but a lot of otherwise sane conservatives in the rest of the state join in the opposition.
The “vital service” that the AMHS provides is getting Alaskans who don’t live on the road system to the road system, the Alaska road system, not the Canadian or Lower 48 road system.
It was going to be the end of the World when Gov. Hammond ended the white-jacketed waiter service in the 1970s, but the system endured. The next evolution of the system will truly be a Greyhound bus on the water, but as all of us of certain age know, if you didn’t have a car, you had to “ride the dog” and take it as it was.
I want my 2 cents a mile to fix the potholes in my road, and those of you who are reliant on the ferries are going to have to give up some of your almost $5/mile subsidy.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.