Editor’s note: This column first appeared in Must Read Alaska in September, 2021, and is reprinted due to the current situation with the Alaska ferries.
By PAULETTE SIMPSON
Many Alaskans enjoy fond memories of their first ferry rides on the Alaska Marine Highway. Sprinting to the solarium to stake out lounge chairs for sleeping bags and backpacks, pitching tents and picnicking on the upper deck, sleeping under the stars, guitars in the bars. It was a party.
In the summer of 1976, the “Blue Canoes” of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) introduced us to Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka, Juneau, and Haines. Six months later we settled in Juneau and have sailed the ferries ever since, regularly visiting some of the most beautiful places on the planet.
The decision to locate permanently in a community accessible only by sea or air came with the clear understanding that our transportation alternatives would be limited and expensive. Over 40 years here, ferry travel has become even more restrictive, unreliable, and unaffordable. But it’s what we signed on for and we’ll never argue we are entitled to a fully subsidized lifestyle choice.
Before the advent of air service or the AMHS, a healthy marine transportation system flourished in Southeast. Market-driven by the many mines, canneries, the military presence at Ft. Seward in Haines, and a burgeoning visitor industry, ships of all sizes called daily at docks in Juneau, Douglas, Treadwell and outlying communities. And well before the discovery of gold in Southeast, for purposes of hunting, fishing, trade and warfare, the indigenous and intrepid Tlingit navigated the region extensively.
The original 1957 state ferry route served the mainland communities of Juneau, Haines and Skagway. In 1963, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka and Prince Rupert were added. Kodiak, Cordova, Homer, Seldovia, Valdez, and Seward came on in 1964. Over the years, smaller communities were added and today the AMHS serves 35 Alaska ports.
Some cite poor management for the ferry system’s current sad state of affairs. But the inability of the AMHS to meet the transportation needs of Alaskans is more correctly the result of economic and demographic shifts, unrealistic expectations about how ships can perform, and politics.
Alaska’s oil boom is over. The population of Southeast is stagnant, and Alaska’s Railbelt commands the lion’s share of political clout. Most Alaskans do not relate to a transportation system that requires a 67 percent state subsidy benefiting around 10 percent of the population. I can’t blame them. Next week we will ferry roundtrip from Juneau to Haines. The fare for two seniors and a pick-up is $542. The state subsidy is about $1,100.
(Just curious… if the AMHS is for Alaskans, why are non-Alaskans the beneficiaries of such generous subsidies?)
All public transportation systems – buses, subways, airplanes, ships – are impacted by forces beyond their control. (Example: Covid.) But the sheer size and complexity of ships and their systems cause maintenance issues unique to marine travel, resulting in heavy costs and frequent breakdown.
Central to the “politics” factor are conflicting opinions about what the state’s financial obligation should be and which alternatives should be pursued.
Perhaps it is finally time to get over our hopelessly sentimental and naive expectations about “frequent and affordable” ferry service and adopt alternatives that would actually minimize operating costs and improve travel.
The Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group is soliciting public input, seeking “constructive” comments about “ports of call; levels of service; tariffs; contracting options; fleet size, type, maintenance, and replacement; governance and labor contract requirements.”
I would stipulate that transportation is a core function of government and Alaska’s island communities will always need ferries. We should still, however, expect fiscally responsible management of our state’s resources, and decision-making that is forward-looking and fair.
Fair-minded decision-making would dismiss the wishful thinking of a return to legacy levels of ferry service and low fares appropriate to a different era.
A forward-looking and environmentally sensitive mindset would reject the outmoded model of a diesel-burning mainline ferry whose enormous fuel consumption is mostly spent moving itself and not its payload.
Fiscally responsible management of limited state resources would embrace a “hub and spoke” system utilizing small dayboats or shuttles.
Fiscally responsible management of resources would also demand the shortest possible ferry runs connecting strategically located roads for travel by energy-efficient, Covid-free electric cars.
It’s not 1980 anymore. The party is over.
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Paulette Simpson lives in Douglas.