Win Gruening: What will it take to get a reliable, efficient ferry system?



The Alaska Marine Highway System continues to struggle with declining ridership, reliability, and reduced funding. There is no shortage of opinions about what should be done. 

For years, coastal communities became accustomed to regular ferry service to any port that wanted it – whether the traffic supported it or not. Unions continued to extract more benefits and higher wages – whether warranted or not. When Southeast population began slipping and ridership declined, state subsidies continued to balloon, and fares had to increase. 

It was a vicious cycle and it had to end. It finally did when Gov. Dunleavy was elected. His proposed cuts to the ferry system were not popular and arguably not implemented very well, but they were necessary. Today, while the system is currently operating with less than half the fleet it once had, communities are still getting service, albeit with less frequency.

In 2019, a study commissioned by Gov. Dunleavy concerning future operations of AMHS suggested folding AMHS into a public corporation. But without systemic changes, re-creating AMHS as a public corporation is akin to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Ferry advocates’ insistence that Alaska’s “roads don’t make a profit” and reduced ferry service is like “shutting down the Parks Highway” is a faulty comparison. 99.5% of Alaska’s vehicular traffic occurs on roads and over 80% of the highway operations/maintenance budget is offset by users through gas taxes and other fees. 

Those choosing to live in coastal communities must face the facts: ferries historically have moved less than 1% of vehicular traffic with only 30% of the operational costs paid by users and 70% subsidized by state general funds.

Throwing more operating money at the problem will only help perpetuate the current inefficiencies and expense drivers that threaten to sink the system today. 

AMHS’s biggest cost drivers are labor and fuel. If the system is ever going to operate at acceptable service and subsidy levels, then these costs must be addressed.

Ironically, these issues were tackled over 40 years ago when AMHS was still in its infancy. In 1977, as part of recommendations for the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, the Southeast Conference unanimously endorsed a plan that eliminated double crews on most vessels by operating mostly shuttle ferries. A mainline vessel would run north to Ketchikan then on to Juneau and return south. Shuttle ferries would then run from Juneau and Ketchikan to outlying communities. This “hub and spoke” system, combined with extending roads where possible, promised to improve flexibility, reduce labor costs, and fuel costs by operating smaller more efficient day ferries.

Unfortunately, the plan was never implemented except in a limited way with the Alaska Class Ferries, the Tazlina and the Hubbard. Yet, plans are now underway to add crew quarters to these vessels, totally reversing their efficiency advantage.

Meanwhile, environmental activists and ferry unions have deliberately stalled meaningful road projects that would have made AMHS more efficient and sustainable.

This is why AMHS is in the predicament it is today.

There’s no reason the State cannot update, finalize, and implement a shuttle ferry plan similar to the SATP in Southeast Alaska and parts of Southcentral Alaska. This still makes sense even as some routes, such as cross-Gulf or to and from Bellingham, and ports in SW Alaska may require larger mainline vessels.

There is also no reason our state should not build roads where they make sense.

The Environmental Impact Study for the proposed Juneau Access project connecting Juneau and Haines incorporating these concepts estimated a fare of $21 each way for vehicle and driver. Other examples include completing construction of road projects from Kake to Petersburg and Sitka to Warm Springs that would lower user and system costs and improve AMHS efficiency and reliability. 

Those are the kind of public transportation improvements that can be realized with a day-shuttle ferry operation coupled with a road extension.

Another proposed plan involves building a new ferry terminal north of Juneau at Cascade Point, shortening the Northern Lynn Canal ferry route 30 miles and reducing one-way sailing times by approximately 2.1 hours.

Contrary to claims by road opponents, these initiatives have not suffered from a lack of transparency or public input. The most recent two-decade effort to implement day ferries and a road extension in Northern Lynn Canal is evidence of that.

If we want a reliable, efficient ferry system, it’s time to try something different. What we are doing now isn’t working and hasn’t worked for a long time.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening began writing op-eds for local and statewide media. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations and currently serves on the board of the Alaska Policy Forum.

Read: Ranked choice voting is not that simple

Read: Population, population, population


  1. It’ll take Local passengers and businesses choosing to use it instead of Alaska Air and Frieght boats like the old days when AMHS was coastal communties main transportation and their pastime joy as a simple vacation. From my understanding if a new ferry system return that be best wouldn’t be state owned. The declining passenger and business use didn’t encourage its existence. Now! We seen Alaska’s culturalal and historic Ferries being bargained away at low bargain prices. My favorite ferry was the Malaspina, then the le conte for its iconic CHEERS bar appearence, then the Columbia for its iconic fancier dining room.

  2. As a long term Juneauite, it’s simple

    1-build the damn road from Skagway as far south as possible. Ketchikan if feasible. Other nations can figure out how to build cold weather bridges and tunnel. We can, too.

    2-Privatize the remaining ferry routes. Let someone like Allen Marine do it.
    Limit said routes to outer islands on a regular basis. Let the market and the villages determine how much need there is.

    3-Build bridges linking island like Baranof and Chichagof together. Build a two lane road connecting all communities on said road system to eliminate the need for multiple ferry stops. Increase commerce and healthcare access to Sitka as well.

    4-Possibly have the state retain a Bellingham to Skagway route to help with commerce.

    Southeast is a slowly dying area due to lack of opportunities, ability to travel, grossly high cost of living, inertia, and liberals. It suffers from extreme wealth gaps (see suffering from liberals how stifle innovation and competition) and old established families with too much to lose.

    The common refrains are: we like things the way they are, and undesirable people like criminals might come in.

    Like things are is a slow death. Worse, drifting into inconsequential ness. Criminals and undesirables are already here. The legislature.

    But I’ve got a better chance to be named King of England than southeast acting in its best interests.

  3. A possibility is a bridge between the islands Wrangell & Petersburg are on. There is a possible ferry terminal that already exists between both islands used by the IFA local ferry service that operates between Ketchikan, Prince of Wales, Wrangell & Petersburg (not sure of the status of all that service) but that’s the jist of it. And there has been talk for years of a road to Telegraph Creek in BC from Wrangell which could intersect with the main BC road system (that would likely require improvements) even if it was only seasonally open.

    • If we can’t build a bridge between Ketchikan and Ketchikan’s airport, forget one between Wrangell and Kupreanof Islands. It will be yet another “bridge to nowhere”.

  4. As this is being written there are numerous entrepreneurs moving in to fill the voids left by the AMHS shrinkage. However, these providers (although nimble and versatile) suffer from lack of available and affordable shore-side infrastructure for loading and unloading. Meanwhile, the state ferry terminals throughout Southeast are lying fallow for the most part. Why is the state willing to provide airports throughout Alaska for hundreds of commercial carriers while being unwilling to do so with the ferry terminals? Let me guess; the unions control the terminals.

  5. First, let’s get out of interstate commerce and remove as much US jurisdiction over the System as possible. Years ago John Torgerson and I penciled out, albeit on a cocktail napkin, allowing anyone with an ADL to use the System for free so long as we stopped serving PR and Bellingham. We as a state step in and make Hyder the entrepot to Alaska/Canada. From what I know of Hyder, they’re probably not much interested in having their stately repose disturbed, but the State can put a very nice ferry terminal there and upgrade the roads as necessary, and if you’re headed to or from Alaska, this is where you get on and off. If you have a criminal record that doesn’t allow you entry to Canada, rent or place a vehicle in the Lower 48 and fly; the State has no obligation to subsidize your bad habits. Frankly Alaska local police and the Troopers are the best travel agents for the AMHS. We should also think hard about the Cross-Gulf service, since we’re mostly just subsidizing federal and corporate transfers with that service. We can always trot out the M/V Kennecott for a special cross-gulf for the legislature for however long the Session remains in Juneau.

    It is worth a trip to the USSC to challenge the Wickersham issue and the Jones Act’s application to a State owned shipping line not engaged in international or interstate commerce. It is worth a legal challenge to see just how much authority the Coast Guard, a wholly owned subsidiary of the maritime unions, has over a State owned shipping line not engaged in international or interstate commerce.

    And contract out management of the System. There are plenty of companies that manage shipping lines even under arcane US laws and enable economical if not necessarily profitable operation. The fundamental problem with the AMHS is lousy management both at headquarters and on the bridge. The deck officers do a good job of getting the vessels from port to port safely and reliably, but they haven’t a care for the cost of operations and don’t really think it is their job. The deck officers think that they’ve done their job by making sure the crew is happy with how the OT and premium pay gets spread around.

    And finally, one day some governor and legislature is going to have to have the courage to shut the system down as long as it takes to bring the unions to heel. The deck officers and engineers couldn’t care less about a shutdown; they just show up at the Hall in Seattle and find a US flagged ship they can sign on to. They’ll strike until the last unlicensed guy starves to death. The unlicensed employees mostly live in Alaska, mostly in Southeast but some elsewhere in Coastal Alaska. When they get laid off or go in strike, they start whining to their legislators and before long the Governor and the Commissioner of Administration is catching Hell to get the poor boys and girls back to work. No governor in Alaska’s history has ever been able to stand up to that. The marine unions struck in ’78 and then used Hammond’s commissioners of DOT and Admin like the cabin boys on a Greek freighter; it was like the ransom of Red Chief to get them back to work and almost forty years later I was trying to buy stuff back that was given away back then.

  6. Some things are worth wasting money for. The ferry system is a jewel of the state which doesn’t exist anywhere else on earth. Give it a little money!

  7. A state that has access to it’s recourses and no democrats in Anchorage, Juneau or Washington DC. Without that happening, learn to do what western Alaska does, go without.

  8. My father worked as the port steward back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He resigned due to the battles he faced even back then with the unions. someone would be fired for just cause only to protest it with the unions and get their jobs back. He was fighting a losing battle even back then, shows you how powerful the unions are, it’s kind of like a criminal cartel really. you have to join us or you can’t work.
    And the pay was pretty high for the time. seems like nothings changed there.

  9. “…….There is also no reason our state should not build roads where they make sense……..”
    LOL! Can you say “Copper River Highway”? The legal right-of-way has been there since 1938 when Kennicott shut down, and it has even had a legal highway designation for well over half a century, but Cordova still wants its ferry, and will pitch a fit at any mention of making the road passable again. Additionally, every entity between here and the Atlantic seaboard will file suit against any attempt to “maintain the highway”, as Wally Hickel tried during his last administration. He had a bridge hauled in to span the Uranatina River, and it even got hauled out, I guess just in case some right-wing conspirator tried to set it up himself. Ahtna even sued because somebody spilled some dirt into the Copper River, which is just a bit more liquid than mud already.
    Even the roads that have been built over the past half century are closed to the public. The Dalton Highway was a private road for decades, and it’s shoulders are still considered such hallowed ground that snowmobiles are forbidden to cross them.
    Sorry, that war was fought and lost decades ago. There will be no more roads built in Alaska unless they haul out riches, and the only people using those roads will be the ones who profit on the riches.

  10. There are simply too many environmentalist whackos against road building. For example, residents of Tenakee Springs could have easily lobbied the Forest Service to extend the logging road mere 6 miles to connect them with the road to Hoonah, but they opposed it. That road could have provided significant transportation improvements. But many Tenakeeites don’t even want people to use ATVs and there is an ordinance prohibiting people from using ATVs to access their own land from existing trails. The town is withering as a result. Businesses and cabins have been on the market for years with no buyers. Without a change in attitudes toward road access, Southeast Alaska will continue to stagnate.

Comments are closed.