Paulette Simpson: The party is over for ferries


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.


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.

Email your comments to: [email protected]

Paulette Simpson lives in Douglas.  


  1. Good piece, Paulette! As you know, I sat across the bargaining table from the AMHS pirates for twenty years. There will be no meaningful change in the AMHS other than continuously increasing prices and continuously reducing service until the system is run by an independent board like the Railroad has and we stop recruiting all the supervisory and managerial employees from within the System or from other Jones Act shippers or the Navy and Coast Guard. All of these managers learned their trade in government funded and cost no object operations. An AMHS deck officer is conditioned to think that the efficient use of overtime and premium pay is to make sure all of the crew are happy that they got their share. There are plenty of ship management companies in the World who know how to operate even a heavily regulated government shipping line efficiently, if not profitably.

    Southeast Alaska no longer has the political power to protect the status quo and people in the Railbelt given a choice between having their potholes fixed and their road plowed or giving subsidized transportation to SE Alaska find that an easy choice.

    • Oh Art…I see you’re still reliving your glory-days as a swaggering State contract negotiator before you fade away like the northern lights do come sunrise. I still recall (with a laugh of course) of when you stood across from all us AMHS employees gathered on the Fairweather in the spring of 2004. We had no working contract, as the fast-ferries were the new red-headed step-children of AMHS. And lemme tell ya, I’ll be the first to agree with most other opinions, both with those working the ships and those ashore, that those two fast-ferries were a colossal boondoggle and a HUGE waste of untold $$$$$$$ millions of State DOT funds that came directly down the outhouse shitteree from the Knowles Admin way back when. But I digress…so back to my chuckle. What struck us as rather “funny” or at least nonsensical to all of us professional mariners gathered on FWX that day was your “negotiation proclamation” that these two new catamaran fast-ferry platforms “were not really vessels (ie: ships) at all”…”just take a look at the bridge”…”they’re more like the Starship Enterprise, so therefore you cannot expect to come in under any existing AMHS contracts”. Well, lo & behold…someone with more nautical sense must have pointed out that flaw in your logic. It took over a year to secure while working without a contract, but we finally got a fair supplemental working contract.

      As I’m an AMHS Deck Officer, I’m going to school you now on another flaw you spouted. The Chief Mate is the only one (1) working Deck Officer on a AMHS ship, either on A Crew or their counterpart on B Crew, who does the timesheets of ONLY THE DECK DEPARTMENT, NOT THE WHOLE SHIP! The “whole ship” would include the Engineering, Stewards, & Pursers departments, of which the Chief Mate (Deck Officer) would have nothing to do with as far as preparing a timesheet for. All Chief Mates diligently and meticulously prepare ONLY Deck Department timesheets for Payroll and review them before signing off on all overtime entries to them for deckhand hours worked, either for off-watch call-outs or for hours worked in excess of a 12-hour workday. Yes folks…we work 12-hour days for at least 14 days straight and in many cases, up to 6 weeks straight or even longer…not like all you clock-watchin Monday to Friday desk jockies! So Art, do us all a favor…perhaps in your future postings you should research the facts before you spout off and disparage a group which includes me.

      • I looked at the AMHS from a much higher perspective than that of a Deck Officer. You don’t know what you don’t know, but you have all the arrogance that made it really easy to really dislike you guys.

        The HSCC vessels were never intended to be operated like the conventional fleets and you guys would never give up your archaic notions. The AMHS unions still think like they’re working on a shares ship trading brass keys and cheap whiskey with the Natives of the Alaska coast and provisions to the Russians for otter fur in the 1850s.

        I still have the email that I sent in the middle of the night to the Governor’s Office when I had to meet with you pirates the next day. I said, “the price of oil has been over $50 for a couple of months; lets just throw some money at the “fine gentlemen” and get out of the news, and, of course, it didn’t take long for the fast boats to fail spectacularly, but you guys and the Greenies staved off a Juneau road and took Juneau a large step closer to its ultimate demise as the State Capital.

  2. Excellent overview of a public system applying yesterday’s means to try and accommodate today’s needs.

    Our antiquated system of public education is worse than the AMHS boondogle, with more than 50 school districts running part-year programs—with top paid teachers getting year-round salaries and benefits—here for their Alaska Adventures so they can go home after 20 years with TRS benefits. Some might argue the cost is worth it “for the children” but unfortunately academic outcomes are at the bottom of all the states.

    It is time for Alaska’s Education Governor to convene a special commission to look honestly at this moneypit and determine what would best serve Alaskans who truly want the best for our state’s future.

    Education factories run by union thugs need to become a thing of the past.

    • Well, uprooting yourself and your family and coming north to the promised land comes at a price. Alaska grows not very many educated certified teachers so they must come from outside. Factor in the cost of transportation and shipping in food in fact everything needed for quality of life isn’t cheap. In the end there isn’t a whole lot of money to be saved but the working vacation theory is what brings a lot of young people up here. The teacher retirement system isn’t what it used to be. Tier 3 people really can’t afford to retire since the health insurance goes away. and like I said many times but some people are too dumb to listen or comprehend it, the year-round pay is based on 12 equally dispersed amounts based on the contract. Teachers work about nine months and split that money into 12 equal portions so they can pay bills make car payments blah blah blah over the summer. but it was a nice socialist spin you tried to put on it. The ferry system needs to go away at least the public paid for ferry system. It’s a dinosaur money pit and there are better ways for someone to get out of a South East village do you go to the doctor or they have a sack of groceries brought in.

      • The ferry does not need to go away. Because of the honchos sitting in the offices who made stupid expensive decisions to hurt the ferry system means they need to go away and time to get people who know exactly what is needed to keep our communities interacting. Those in office actually hired someone from Louisiana to design those stupid fast ferries. FROM LOUISIANA. To design fast ferries for ALASKAN WATERS! Those so called ferries could never be used when the waters got rough. Because they couldn’t be used, ridership was down. But they sure used the ridership down to say the ferries aren’t being used! Then guess what? Parts for those fast ferries were super expensive to replace! And they replaced them, on a ferry that could hardly be used to begin with! Now because that wicked witch of the East told dunleavy to use that idiotic tier to charge passengers, ridership is down. Why would anyone charge people more if the number of passengers was above 50? Using random number FYI. She left a pile then left.

      • You are right about the supply of teachers coming from the Outside. However, they are not what they once were, either. Today, we have SJW, communists, fruit loops whose interest is not education, but indoctrination.
        We have a failed education system, last in the nation in 4th grade reading and writing, 4th from the bottom overall. So much for Outside “teachers”.
        The way it was supposed to work was the U of A was to produce teachers from Alaskans, but it suffers from the same malaise as the rest of education. Indoctrination, not education. And, we and Alaska will pay.

    • Please fact check, Donn. The retirement system you refer to evaporated under the Palin administration. Also, teachers can be paid in 9 months, or elect to have their salary spread over 12. I appreciate different opinions and hope to have cleared this up for you.

    • Well said Donn. An even bigger miscarriage is those teachers who don’t even make it 20 years and instead claim disability with early retirement. The taxpayers need to understand it’s the unfunded retirement liability which is slowly bankrupting government on all levels thanks to public “service” unions.

    • I listened to the video of Gov. Dunleavy last Saturday in Kodiak as he announced the contracts to overhaul one ferry and build another larger one to replace it. He also mentioned the need to keep the ferry in that area because many of the islands there did not even have grocery stores and also had to commute to Kodiak for doctor’s appointments. Gov. Dunleavy also announced a special commission to actually be an over-site group into the marine highway and also stressed that the new ferry would have a sustainable and economical engine and have a dedicated maintenance schedule instead of the old method of waiting until the ferry fell apart. For all of you who keep calling for action, the Governor is ahead of you. He also said the incoming monies from the Infrastructure Bill would pay for it. So like a lot of other things, as soon as the dough arrives he has a good use for it.

        • That’s specifically the reason AK is over spending for these Ferries. By insisting on the Ketchikan shipyard building the latest two ferries, we missed out on the Federal funding.
          Brilliant-and even then those ferries were build without crew quarters adding ever more waste as they now are being retrofitted.

          • They were built without crew quarters because they were designed to be day boats in a hub and spoke operating scheme.

            The 19th Century pirates in the marine unions muscled Walker and Dunleavy to give them quarters so they can continue to live in the 19th Century. The System deserves to die. Then maybe something less dysfunctional can be built to replace it.

  3. Fond memories maybe….but always highly overpriced…we are ready for a plan B, one that doesn’t rape our pocketbooks

  4. Thanks for a well-written and well-reasoned article. It explained much of what I did not previously understand in clear and concise, unemotional language.

  5. Excellent article and overview. Lets start the “hub and spoke” with a West Side Road.

    The completion of the West Side Road would significantly reduce costs for the AMHS, allow frequent and reliable transpiration to and from Juneau, and provide a foundation for a greater regional transportation system that could include roads to Excursion Inlet/ Couverden, short ferry hops to Hoonah and other communities in Icy Straight. The project would provide economic stimulus to the whole region during construction and open up new areas for recreation and development.

    Money saved on this run could be used to benefit others in the system. Lets work together and make this happen.

  6. Ridiculous and irresponsible, especially when Canada continues as we speak to severely restrict our border access to/from our own state. Without ferries, we are at the mercy of another soverign nation’s friendship and judgment. Is that anybody’s idea of smart or secure?

    • At almost $3400 for myself and my shortbed pickup, using the AMHS is about as viable as driving through Canada. And that’s assuming the boat is even running, which apparently it hasn’t been, at least not as often as it was scheduled to. At this time, my best option is to send my truck to Washington via an unsubsidized private shipping company and fly down to continue my journey. All that will cost me less than half of what the ferry would and I don’t have to worry about the breakdowns the ferry is notorious for.

  7. “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.”

    Here lays the root flaw of Paulette’s piece, All well and good to give us the known history of the system, fiscally, flaws, and proposed projections such as the quote above.
    There is no doubt the ferry system as we knew it will continue to decline and within a matter of single digit years, cease to exist.

    However,one can not suggest using other than fossil fuel unless one is willing to accept nucellar power (US. Navy ships-example). Of course, wind!! history has proven that wind power may prove more reliable than the Ferry system maintaining any equal level of service,

    Conceptional wise, some enterprising maritime outlet will run the numbers on providing a landing craft/ barge service to Prince Rupert in conjunction with local air taxies who provide air service to Prince Rupert, bypassing the ferry dock and using a private location for loading and discharging cars.
    Flying from Ketchikan to Prince Rupert is a current option. This concept would see a car being delivered to Prince Rupert, moved to a parking location, (liability to be worked out) Owner flys to and from Prince Rupert, Car returns to Ketchikan (POW) in the reverse order.
    The perfect senario is the marine leg loads and departs Ketchikan in relation to the arrival and discharge of the POW ferry. POW island residents(and perhaps, a provided privat operatior between Petersburg, Wrangell to POW would develop)which would join with Ketchikan residents in traveling by air to Prince Rupert, awaiting the arrival or picking up a already delivered car to Prince Rupert,
    Maybe a twice monthly round trip?
    So, there is a concept for consideration.
    Thanks to Paulette for her observations and williness to submit the awareness/suggestions.

    • Not true. The lesser the population, and the more remote the location, the less feasible. If a family lives alone in a cabin on a remote island it would be unreasonable to expect ferry service. The AMHS has been engaging in unfeasible service for decades. The subsidy per citizen in the remote coastal locations far exceeds that of road-connected citizens.

      • Hey, maybe the boats need to be smaller, or run less often, or the price higher, but if there is a need the private sector will find a way to do it at a profit. If government gets out of the way, and there is a need, then someone will find a way.

        • You nailed it. As long as the state is providing any service the private sector will not enter the market. No business will ever compete head-on with a competitor that is willing to lose money (subsidize).

    • I remember voting to move the capital to Willow 46 years ago. The Alaska swamp will never allow it. This is an issue that almost all politicians can agree on. Why would they want to move the capital to a location accessible by road to half the population when they can continue their mischief sequestered in Juneau, a location inhabited by people who love bigger and more government and bigger budgets?

      • The true history of the capital move votes seems to have escaped from your memory.

  8. There are many dozens of currently unused ‘tour boats’/ships, privately owned, in Alaska. No income for them this year and maybe for several more. Tie up the ferries and let those ‘tour boats’ take care of passenger service. Let them charge whatever it takes to provide service to the mostly sheltered, isolated towns and villages located on the inside waterway in southeast. For the ocean going service, there are private vessels available on demand, barge/freight services currently operating and air taxi after air taxi waiting for the chance to make a year round living in Alaska. Almost all the traffic for the ferries is ‘people moving’. The cargo can and should be moved by freight companies currently operating all over coastal Alaska. Government operating subsidized passenger and cargo operations in direct competition with the private sector should be a big no-no. What a savings for State of Alaska if the private sector had the chance to do what they do without competing against their own tax dollars.

    • Ben, you make good points. However, the biggest hindrance to the private carriers is lack of shore-side infrastructure. Air carriers rely on government-provided airports. Why can’t we make the ferry terminals available for a fee to the private providers you describe? We don’t seem to have a problem providing subsidized harbors for pleasure boats throughout Alaska.

  9. Top paid? Year round benefits? Here for 20 years TRD benefits ? Education is a money pit? Union thugs?
    You have a very warped perception of the school in Alaska.
    The pay is not high and is shrinking , benefits are shrinking too.
    Education of Alaska’s children should be our number 1 budget item snd priority. Todays Alaska children are tomorrow’s leaders, business perdons and taxpayers.
    I am not a teacher.

    • Charles, you left out a key fact. The education bureaucracy is failing to deliver the goods. The students are turning out poorly-educated. The average test score for high school graduates is D. That means half are below D. Like all communist monopolies, the education bureaucracy is an abject failure. The solution? In one word: vouchers.

  10. Hopefully the State of Alaska will pull the plug on the ferry system and support the existing airports, instead of continuing to bleed big bucks for that albatross. Private enterprise works, if it is allowed!

    • David, trouble is the air carriers to rural communities are compensated with heavy Federal subsidies. Your model merely shifts the burden from the State to the Feds.

      • How would the newly announced US Post Office plan to eliminate the inexpensive mailing of goods by air to remote interior locations affect your response?…or is that the Fed subsidy you mention?

  11. All good comments which need to be considered in the realistic/no nonsence financial direction of our state. It’s time for the reality of our future to be addressed.
    We have a governor who is ready we must support him with legislators and the staff willing to do the job. Name calling won’t get the job done only the real and true facts addressed by honest people can.

  12. Airports have proven to be a tolerable level of government involvement in air travel. That is, the government provides terminals (airports) while actual air carriers are private. We need a similar model for marine transportation in Alaska. Our AMHS terminals need to be retrofitted to be utilized by a wide variety of private marine transporters. The wharfage fees would be handled similarly as airports.

    The concept of comparing air and marine terminals correlates our system of roads and highways. The government provides the roads but does not provide the automobiles, trucks, taxis, etc that transport people and freight.

    As far as the remote villages are concerned, the government provides heavy subsidies to air carriers serving villages in northern Alaska. The same could happen with marine carriers serving villages in coastal Alaska. In either case, its impossible for government to operate either planes or ships efficiently; it should never attempt such a futile endeavor. The AMHS is proof of that. The exception of the armed forces should never be used for comparison; our defense budget is proof of that; it provides endless fodder for comedians.

    We need to truly reshape the AMHS into a network of private marine transport companies supported by public terminals (airport style).

    • Wayne, more roads are the answer. Simple solutions like a road from Sitka to Chatham, another up Lynn cannel from Juneau. However even roads have limitations. Prior to the ferries the small owner operator business model delivered mail in Southeast. These were family owned boats, nimble and intrepid. Point is there will always be a need for water transport between islands where the road ends!

      • Hey Einstein, or whatever your real name is, its never feasible to build a road to a community with only a handful of people in it. The feasibility algorithm requires a minimum population to be served to be equitable to all Alaskans. Its unfair to those working productively in urban centers to subsidize the non-productive few choosing to live in remote areas with idyllic, pseudo-subsistence lifestyles? I can understand why you hide behind a phony name.

        • Einstein? I thought you disparaged name calling in one of your previous verbose and over wrought comments. I use the the handle ” Older” because I am.
          But that aside, back to ROADS. Are you saying that Juneau and Sitka do not meet the feasibilty algorithm? Are you opposed to roads?

          • Ah yes, you use the handle “older” to give credibility to remarks that are otherwise factually weak. You are engaging in a logical fallacy known as “argument from authority.” That is, your length of time in Alaska somehow adds truth to your comments. Sorry, Robert, to successfully make points you must actually argue with facts.

      • I remember when a majority of the residents of Cordova said NO to a road being built to their city. That road would have easily followed a lot of the old railroad line of the Kennicott Mine. Real forward thinking. Governor Murkowski caught a lot of flack when he had the Million Dollar bridge fixed so you could drive to the other side of the Copper River. Alaska has not built a new road since 1974 and the oil companies built that one and then turned it over to the state. However, the bridge across the Yukon River was a state project. The environmentalist movement would be up in arms with funds from all the lower 49 states to stop any road from Juneau to Haines or Skagway. That road, if built, would have many of the same slide problems that the Seward Hwy has along Turnagain Arm. All of the villages along our three major interior rivers, the Tanana, the Nenana and the Yukon are serviced by for profit barge lines quite well.

  13. I first rode on the AMHS fifty-four years ago. Worked on the Blue Canoes for a time, but not too long. Pay rate was about $3 per hour. Did the calculations this afternoon: About a hundred round trips in Southeast but not many in recent years. I guess the root problems are financial but I do not believe that a remotely viable system can be operated on the southern end without a Prince Rupert turn-around. Fares based on a Bellingham starting point are beyond the reach of most Alaskans. The fact is that southern Southeast derives more benefits from a shorter, cheaper connection than Canada does. Time to cut a deal with Canada and move on. As things currently sit we are becoming LESS connected than we were sixty years ago. That is not progress.

    • We built the Alaska Highway,….but are restricted by Canada.
      There should be a way to “annex” a portion of Canada in both Yukon Territory and British Columbia via the Cassier Hwy. To give us open access to Alaska, bypassing Canada altogether.

      • Yours is an excellent idea except for it requires violent seizing of Canadian territory. As a practical reality, Canada treats Americans quite poorly as regards trans-border travel. The reason is obvious. Most Canadians generally suffer from deep-seated feelings of inferiority brought about by the weaker-sibling relationship their nation has with USA. They are always compensating at every opportunity. Imagine if your national identity was built upon the coat-tails of a much more accomplished neighboring country. It grinds on them that everything Canadian originated in the USA.

        • Just drove the ALCAN, other than one border agent who had the hots for me, it was pretty easy and fairly friendly. They did get a booger in their pants when I said I am not vaxed. Just be sure to wear my chin diaper!Many of those little places are hurting for the tourism along the HWY.
          I would venture a fair share of western Canadians lean Alaska than toward Ottawa.

      • Yep U built the howdy but you did not buy the land it is on. Just like building a nice house is kinda cheap but try and buy a cheap lot, with full services – usually a lot more $$ than the buildings on it.

  14. Travel is NOT a function of government. Government also should not give out any kind of subsidies. If an industry can’t survive in the market it should be allowed to die. If demand exists for a service the market will find a profitable means to fulfill that demand.

    • This is, in my opinion, probably the best post in this thread. Many people have written how to solve an issue but still requiring government assistance for a road just perpetuates the core issue; more government help. Alaska had always been advertised as a rugged and marvelous landscape, not for the faint at heart. Meant for strong willed people. If something doesn’t work you find another way or let it die. Expecting a government subsidy can only last as long as the governing people. It takes away the idea of Alaska being so wild. Self sustaining solutions are always a better choice. If there is a demand a supply will be created. It’s simple, it’s basic business.

    • Travel does seem to be a function of government, as they put out a lot of funds each year, so you can drive on the highway – unless you only stay home, and do not travel at all. I live in a small community with only access by water or air. Freight and vehicle travel must be by water. We consider the AMHS as part of the highway system that covers South Centeral Alaska…. If the government can pay for highways on land for some citizens, why not pay for marine highway for other citizens. Fair is fair!

      • You asked, “why not pay for AMHS, fair is fair?” Precisely how much more per citizen should the government pay to subsidize ferry access vs road access? 2-times more? 3-times? Would you believe that, in some cases, the subsidy per citizen served by ferries is 26-times that for road access. That is, the government subsidy per person for road access to Palmer is about 1/26th of the subsidy per person for ferry access to Pelican or Gustavus. You were saying something about “fair is fair.”

    • If that statement is universally true then let’s apply abortion to the test. It’s obviously a product in demand. Since selling human parts are against the law, where do you derive the ‘profitable means to fulfill that demand’ ? Even in the free market ?
      What was your quote ? ‘If an industry can’t survive in the market it should be allowed to die’.
      Now I consider myself good at thinking out of the box but the same way killing humans won’t ever pay for itself in the current laws of the land, ferries in their current configuration won’t find a profit either.

  15. As I see it the woes began with the Knowles Administration. Along with our fair share for oil taxes. In both cases the result was a drop in usage. The pipeline suddenly was at only half capacity the ferries suddenly were a hurting for income.

    Then came Obamacare and union insurance that in 2014 was $400 a month skyrocketed to $1,200 a month in a few years. Nobody is kicking that sacred cow, but I just did! Where is that extra $800 a month coming from? Per employee. As I see it, Obamacare is what is driving the nails into a bunch of jobs, not just the ferry system. I know of a number if folks that quit a good job due to the jump in insurance. But Congress passed the bill and nobody is allowed to point out the one of many flaws.

    The other issue is the marine highway is trying to be a mini cruise ship. System prices climb service is reduced, prices go up more, and less of us who live here can afford to ride the ferries with this pricing scheame.

    So we who live here cannot afford to ride it, and less usage and reduction in service results.

    While I realize that prices must rise, is it even feasible to charge almost $500 bucks to go from Juneau to Wrangell with a 17 foot car? Who lives here who can afford that? They who work for state or federal government jobs.

    Another issue is piss poor maintenance on these ships. As the budget was being raped by Obamacare, the maintenance was cut back. Want things to run, want them to work? Get the politicians out of the engine room. And for God’s sake, keep them out of the wheelhouse!

    • Believe me, they’re in the wheelhouse. Audio recording devices are installed above the control console, the Captain’s chair, the chart table, both bridge wings, the coffee pot and the steering stand. This is mostly to record a chain of events in case of an accident, but the politicians and authorities are indirectly present listening to everything.

    • Stick to something you know about. Marine Highway unions were on the standard State employee insurance plan, which was well over a thousand a month in 2014. No State employee has ever been under ObamaCare, so it is irrelevant.

    • I remember when a majority of the residents of Cordova said NO to a road being built to their city. That road would have easily followed a lot of the old railroad line of the Kennicott Mine. Real forward thinking. Governor Murkowski caught a lot of flack when he had the Million Dollar bridge fixed so you could drive to the other side of the Copper River. Alaska has not built a new road since 1974 and the oil companies built that one and then turned it over to the state. However, the bridge across the Yukon River was a state project. The environmentalist movement would be up in arms with funds from all the lower 49 states to stop any road from Juneau to Haines or Skagway. That road, if built, would have many of the same slide problems that the Seward Hwy has along Turnagain Arm. All of the villages along our three major interior rivers, the Tanana, the Nenana and the Yukon are serviced by for profit barge lines quite well.

  16. I have no idea what sort of State funding they get or how their ferries run (diesel, etc.), but you might contact Caledonian-MacBrayne (known locally as CalMac) in Scotland to see if they can offer any suggestions. They go to all the small Scottish islands in the West Coast that have no other transportation connection, except for a very few flights on very small planes run by LoganAir.

    • Grunstein, it’s the Affordable Healthcare Act, not Obamacare. Way to derail a topic so that you can expound on a subject that clearly annoys you. Clearly, in contradiction to your claim that “no one is allowed to point the one of many flaws,” you just did, openly, freely and legally. It’s not a sacred cow, just something that you disagree with. This isn’t the McArthy Era, you are allowed to express your opinion. Just, please, remember to not confuse your opinion with fact.

        • Kinda like that iconic Alaska sea plane the Beaver eh. Never mind its big brother Otter or the most awesome ski, wheel float plane of all, the mighty Twin Otter
          Course you did get Trump to slap a 300percent duty on Bombarding jets cause Boeing didn’t want to compete.
          Alaska doesn’t know what free trade is. Both hands taking Fed money then always shouting I’m a rugged individual. Sorry all them liven Yukon.

  17. David, trouble is the air carriers to rural communities are compensated with heavy Federal subsidies. Your model merely shifts the burden from the State to the Feds.

    • Robert, your point is only provisionally correct in its limited view. It is far cheaper for the government to subsidize air service to villages instead of setting up and providing a unionized government airline to provide said service. I have pointed out we need to apply that model to marine transport as well. Inasmuch as we are politically bound to support the village lifestyles, at least we could hope for market competition for the subsidies. If you listen more carefully, and ponder the actual facts, the angst revealed in your comments should dissipate.

  18. BC Ferries just bought 2 boats from Europe for $200 mil I think, and they’re powered with hybrid electric motors. The plan is for BC Hydro to build charging stations at the terminals and then those ships run on electricity port-to-port. We have the same capability for building a modern fleet of shorter ferry runs in Southeast. It requires “outside the box” thinking and a vested plan for success in this region, neither of which this Dunleavy administration possesses.

  19. I have many great memories from my childhood. One of the memories is taking trips throughout southeast Alaska on Alaska marine highway ships. I have traveled on many of them Colombia, Malaspina, Matanuska, LeConte and Taku.. I’m was very lucky I was able to experience these wonderful southeast Alaska ports as a child. Thanks for the article. Michael born in Juneau 1974

  20. My grandparents and parents traveled back and forth to Alaska via the Alaska Steamship Company, a private enterprise that serviced Alaska from Seattle for many decades. Until the government got into the ferry business.

    • Another way of looking at that, Mayor Dan, is that the government got into the ferry business BECAUSE of Alaska Steamship Company. There is a good argument that the AMHS had little or nothing to do with the demise of Alaska Steam. Alaska Steam had stopped passenger service to Alaska in 1954. Trucking via the AlCan was the proximate cause of the demise of Alaska Steam as a freight carrier and improved post-war air service signaled the end of passenger service. The Territorial Government bought a private vessel operating JNU-HNS, the M/V Chilkoot and operated it, then bought a new vessel, the M/V Chilkat to replace it, which became the first vessel of the new state-owned Alaska Ferry System in ’63.

  21. Living in Alaska 6 years, splitting time with Oregon,the ferry system was pleasant, enjoyable, expensive, giving enough info about travel. AMHS would be better going Seattle to Juneau, then another system among island communities, Canada could contract with Alaska separately.

  22. The Alaska Steamship Company served us well. It’s time to convert state ferry docks and ramps to fit private barge and passenger boats. The state can collect user fees and ditch the albatross we now have in place.

  23. In my business sales cure all ills. When business is favorable we can afford to be more generous with employees pay and benefits, save more for capital improvements, expansion, and debt reduction, and perhaps that new boat. When times are tough we sell the boat and minimize expenses until we can rebound while trying to keep our employees in a pay check as well as we can. I have to admit that I like our antiquated, nostalgic ferry system. And I may be in the minority which is just fine by me, that is willing to share a little of the wealth I have earned for myself to keep them running a bit longer, with some steady improvements along the way. Yet, considering I only pay property tax here in AK, I would expect that the calculation for state subsidized services would be affected by the financial realities of the moment that affect tax revenue. Not that a state income tax could save the ferries, or even should, but I’m thinking we have a very complex statewide fiscal problem to solve here and the ferry system is just another canary dropping dead albeit an already sick one. Alaska is hugely subsidized in any number of ways with both federal and state dollars. This is the third leg of our economy and there is little we can do to avoid it unless massive changes in our economic makeup, population(growth) and cachet outside of Alaska promote new economic growth and new revenues for public services. In my opinion public private partnerships are useful in creating efficient operations for public services. Contractors must compete for public dollars and provide quality services while enjoying the privilege of utilizing public infrastructure and assets. Perhaps the future of the ferries lies more with what is our vision for the future of this state! Are we going to be a creative, growing, attractive place to live, work, or create jobs, or are we going to slide back to the way of simpler times: less services at more cost, fewer people, and a greater divide between the wealthy and the not so much. Hard work really works, and when Alaskans work hard together we make things happen. Ferries, though perhaps not as valuable to as many Alaskans as they once were, are valuable and should be reimagined as a part of a modern, vibrant, growing Alaska. Now how do we get people to move to all of these coastal communities and grow the Alaskan dream! Sales cures all ills!

    • Really appreciate your comment and vision for AK. Thank you for your perspective and positive sentiment.. cheers, mate!

  24. Who builds all the airports & roads? The government. Governments have been building transportation infrastructure for millenia. The Romans did so over 2,000 years ago. Their roads allowed them to expand & maintain their empire over most of Europe & the entire Mediterranean coast, which in turn allowed for the expansion of trade & businesses throughout the entire empire. This model has been followed by all modern governments. Where do you think all our roads & airports came from? The transportation fairy?

    • Those are paid for by those who use them via landing fees, fuel taxes and other fees. The AMHS is a straight subsidy because user charges only amount to one third of the cost to operate and there is no one else except the state to pick up the remaining two thirds. Not to mention this huge subsidy only benefits 10 percent of the population.

  25. We need to keep parts of the Ferry System, mainly the South Central area (Homer/Whittier to Kodiak and the Aleutian chain.) ( I remember years ago, I decided to fly to Kodiak..ha.ha. I waited and until 3-5 minutes before boarding, it was cancelled due to the particular situation. IF I had taken the ferry, though it was a 9 hour ride, I would have been able to get there. I was in a short travel period).

    As where in the Southeast area many short trips could be combined into several longer trips. It seems there are so many smaller shorter separate trips which increases the need for so many smaller routes. The Aleutian Chain is a long trip and further out, and dependence on the ferry is much more needed for cargo, and necessitates.

  26. Just another excuse to not put money into something and use it else where with out care. Amtrak asked for federal help, so should the Alaska ferry. The excuse of Covid is over and not acceptable, if the ferry did not run as much durning covid and fewer customers came, then there should be idle money sitting there that was not used for fuel or employees pay.

  27. It’s called the Alaska Marine HIGHWAY for a reason.It is the only way for those of us who don’t live in the Railbelt or other parts connected by paved roads to get to other locations in Southeast,Kodiak, or on the Aluetians, or even to the Lower 48.There is no question that there has been mis-management in the past, or even now, with service being cancelled for those of us who depend on it for access to Canada or even Bellingham. The paved access to most of the rest of the state and through the Alcan Highway to the lower 48 is available 24 hours daily ( there are of course, due to weather, exceptions). Even with the Alaskan Ferries we do not have that luxury.
    Alaska Airlines is available for personal transport, but,again there are weather problems, even with that option.However, how do you get vehicular access, for whatever reason? Not all persons are physically able to travel by air, due to medical reasons.They are, for all purposes, isolated.
    The answer, of course, is to build a network of roads and bridges in Southeast and use Ferries for the islands in the Chain.
    Wow! Talk about an expensive option. That was O.K. during WW2,with construction of the Alcan, due to the possibility of Japanese invasion. Not an option today or in the future either.
    Since the current sentiment noted on this site, is to shut it down and let the rest of the non connected state go pound sand or figure out some other way to deal with their problem however they can.
    If it’s about the expense, then let’s close all the major highways in the Railbelt during the winter because of the expense of snow plowing them and in the summer because of the expense of winter related damage to the roads.We’d save a ton of money! Let everyone travel by Airlines.( The Airlines and the bush pilots would love that).
    Obviously, I’m being facetious.but in essence that’s what being discussed here.It’s Southeast and Kodiak and the Aleutians problem.Don’t bother me with their problems!
    I live in Southeast because I love my life on a little bit of heaven that this Island provides me.The awesome beauty and the great people of Southeast convinced this transplanted Floridian that this is where I wanted to spent the rest of my life. The Love of my life that I lost 2 1/2 years ago after 47 years together is buried here, and one day I will be also, as will the other members of my wonderful extended family,
    There HAS TO BE A SOLUTION that does not penalize those of us who depend on the Alaska Marine HIGHWAY for access to the rest of the State or the lower 48, when we have no other option.
    I would suggest a committee of concerned citizens representing ALL those affected, not a bunch of Bureaucrats looking for a benefit for themselves,financially or politically to come up with real solutions, not platitudes.
    This is my opinion on this matter, as is my right under our Constitution, and I pray that others will accept it as such.If you disagree, that’s fine, as is your right.The National news of today brings me great sorrow of what is happening in the lower 48 especially. I pray that the Anarchy that we see everyday does not contaminate the “Great Land” May God Bless!

    • Agree. As a lifelong SE Alaskan, I have seen many changes with the system. Mismanagement has (inter-island ferries, fast ferries, weird inconsistent schedule changes) clouded the needed core services: passenger and car transportation between the lower 48 and the largest communities in SE. Locals and tourists are both users as in other beautiful island clusters in the world. Changes in scheduling have seriously decreased ridership numbers, because high school sports teams can’t efficiently travel for weekend tournaments and tourists like to at least have a few hours to walk and explore before traveling on. Honestly, it’s appeared as though the system has been purposely undermined over the last decades. While it’s tough for the AMHS to be everything to be everyone- it serves a very important function for us in SE. It is our road system and can be improved rather than thrown out. I’d still like to see a comparison between the building costs of roads up north plus maintenance and maintenance worker salaries (snowplow etc) applied to our “nautical complex” as if it were possible for it to be a hard road system. (Roads to all places the ferry goes plus hypothetical road workers salaries and maintenance including plowing). I think people might understand the ferry cost and need more.

      • Thank you for speaking up. I’m one of those who love riding the ferries.

        There is a responsible NEED/REQUIREMENT to research the costs of Road construction & maintenance TO THE COSTS OF THE FERRY SYSTEM.

        This is a MUST for all those Road warriors who prefer cars and they ARE also the ones bitching about any type of public transportation.. Just because you own a car doesn’t mean we don’t need great necessities for others.

        OUTSIDERS do not need to apply. i.e. for example, Anchorage bus system hired an outsider, from lower 48 to reconstruct(several years ago) a new bus system and we riders are paying for this disaster every day..(changing from service to frequency) They cut back service to provide service for 4 or 5 routes to run every 15 minutes, deleting other routes which creates people to walk 2-3 blocks to a bus stop in blizzards and icy conditions. Some total areas(now being slowly added) were excluded. Yes, naturally the plans were created in our wonderful summer weather, and had no concepts of our winters.(outsiders).

  28. Income tax, lotteries, fair oil shares. There are ways to make it work. The ferries are an iconic Alaskan treasure. They are included in Americas National Scenic Byway System and are part of the National Highway System. Something needs to be done to preserve this important part of Alaska’s transportation system.

  29. Chog, I agree that there are potential income streams that the GOP has and will continue to block. While the ferry system is an interesting legacy the same service can be provided by passenger boafs and barges by the private sector. Alaska Sreamship Company and Foss, AML,.Boyer Towing are some examples.

  30. Thank you Paulette Simpson for an unbiased, common sense article! AMHS is a unique and wonderful mode of transportation, residents of Southeast Alaska need and deserve a system to travel wherever they need to. As we can see from the comments there are many pros and cons, some of these feasible, some not so much. There has to be a solution and I wish you all a speedy resolution, if all parties involved can keep an open mind and common sense and stop the childish bickering seen in most of these comments a solid will come sooner rather than later. I’m a forty five year resident and have lived from Coldfoot to POW, Southeast is some of the most spectacular and beautiful country I’ve ever seen. Good luck to all of you.

  31. Well in the first place, we want diesel engines in the ship. Period. In the second place, just whose money and product are you using to update with? Who do you think you are to suggest we go electrical propulsion on a ship.

    Want to talk about an increase in down time, that’s just about, party ended right there.

    Whose resources? Whose resources are you using to build these new online ships and boats? Not from me, or what belongs in my state. No.
    I will not finance that, not will I support any resources that are needed for that soon-to-be-junk aided project.

  32. The AMHS was over long before Dunleavy took the oath of Governor office. It’s been running for sentimental and historic reasons for 25 years too long without any leader’s real solutions how to make the Ferries relevant to changing technology and meeting people needs.
    There is a bright spot in Juneau is Sealaska Heritage Institute Canoe races for all those still wanting some kind of sea travel between the islands. SHI has shown how canoe travel is done and it can be done hahaha

  33. As a longtime SE Alaska resident: the ferries are not worth the cost, take forever, are wildly inefficient, and prone to failure leaving people stranded.

    It’s long past time to build a reliable road system from Skagway to Ketchikan. And a decent road system (with a bridge) to link up the communities of Baranof and Chichagof Islands. This would drastically eliminate the need for ferry service in SE. It would allow the remaining boat -when they actually work- to service the truly outlying communities of SE and/or be redeployed to the Aleutians.

    But that requires vision and common sense. Neither exist is SE Alaska or our joke of a legislature

  34. The Ferry system has enormous untapped tourist potential, and exploitation in this manner, similar to the Alaska RR, might allow it to cover all existing routes, and at a profit.

    • Load up another bowl, Dog. The only time the AMHS can operate at something like break-even on the farebox is June, July, and August on the Mainline. No other AMHS operation, the ones that actually serve Alaska residents EVER makes any money.

      I know enough about the System to dismiss all the people who carry on about the private sector taking it on; if they could, they would. The AMHS cannot be operated for a profit. I don’t object to subsidizing it reasonably; Alaskans need the reliable transportation. The problem is that unions and politics have made reasonable unobtainable.

      • Art, with respect, you say, “if the private sector could, it would.” Let’s ask, why would the private sector invest $millions in vessels, shore facilities, infrastructure, organization and marketing to compete head-on with a communist system willing to lose $millions annually? Do I really need to go on?

  35. Prince Rupert should be the end terminus, not Washington state. TSA insisted on being armed and Canada wouldn’t agree, so it is what it is.

    • A better idea is making Hyder, Alaska the southern terminus and the entrepot to the Continental road system. Making Hyder the southern entrepot keeps the entire system in Alaska and not engaged in interstate commerce. That could be used to get us some relief from federal regulation on the assumption we could have an Attorney General that gave a damn about Alaska interests.

      • Brilliant point Art. However, it would also need to include a treaty assuring free, uninterrupted travel through Canada to lower-48.

  36. Good example of the state coming in at significant cost then failing to meet the modernization requirements because of a host of political and other issues. Good place for a free market solution.
    Wonder if SE Alaska Tribes would be interested in owning and operating a ferry system? Seems like a great fit.
    Speaking of privatization, the 49 mile long Lynn Canal Road could be done as a tollway. Better be completed quickly before the SE Alaska land deal gets settled.

  37. We who were here when the AMHW was created under Gov. Egan, knew that this, like any gov’t entity could never be profitable. It was supposed to stand in lieu of roadways in places where roadways do not exist. The feds were supposed to fund the AMHW as they do any other portion of Alaska’s highways.
    I will remind all the pontificators of our Statehood Compact and the obligations of the feds and the state. The state was supposed to manage federal lands for development of resources to provide for the infrastructure that Congress recognized it would never have the money to provide. Then came ANILCA and the abrogation of our Statehood Compact by the feds. Alaska becomes less and less with each federal taking.
    The AMHWS was an innovation to provide a service that a road would otherwise provide. It was never going to make a profit.
    I do wonder, however, how many graduates of the United States Merchant Marine Academy comprise management in the AMHWS?

    • It would seem reasonable to balance a feasibility equation in order to serve any village whether by road or ferry. We spend millions serving 130 people in Tenakee by ferry but we won’t build a road to serve 301 people in McGrath? By the way, to protect their idyllic, subsidized, lifestyle the people of Tenakee arrogantly oppose a road extension from Hoonah. Its all wrong but it serves the ferry unions nicely.

  38. A communist system? Seriously? Like policing, libraries, highways systems, FAA, FDA, National Parks. I could go on…….

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