JUNEAU -- Just after 6 a.m., a handful of cars drove down the ramp from the Juneau ferry dock into the MV LeConte for the ship’s twice-weekly loop through Angoon and nearby Tenakee Springs.
There's no road to Angoon, a Tlingit village of 450, and there's no airport, either. To get there from Juneau, you can buy a one-way seaplane ticket for $160 – or spend $55 to ride the ferry.
But Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has taken aim at the ferry system’s budget, proposing sharp cuts that are threatening its future.
Southeast residents, ferry workers and political leaders have responded by staging rallies at the Capitol, arguing that the system is integral to the region’s commerce and character.
A single trip on the LeConte last week showed how residents have knit the ships into their lives — and how they would adapt if the ferries stopped running.
By the time the LeConte pushed off from the dock, the car deck held a pickup with a new gas stove and oven in the bed, a flatbed trailer stacked with lumber and a box truck filled with fresh produce and dairy.
Upstairs, on the observation deck, Shayne Thompson was drinking a cup of coffee. The box truck was his; Thompson runs Angoon's store and puts supplies on the ferry every week. He said he remembers, as a child before regular ferry service, when food would come just once a month on a barge.
"Everybody would grab it, and then we'd be out for three weeks. That's the way it would go – there was a lot of canned goods eaten then,” Thompson said. “We're able to live a little healthier lifestyle at this point, thanks to the ferry. And it's just fantastic."
Angoon now has no regularly scheduled barges to bring in supplies; neither do a half-dozen other villages that Alaska’s ferries serve, according to the Department of Transportation.
Dunleavy, a Republican, rode one of the state ferries from Washington to Ketchikan when he first arrived in the state, in 1983. And he was elected after saying there was “no plan to hack, cut or destroy” Alaska's ferry system.
But when Dunleavy released his budget in February, he did propose to cut the ferries, by more than two-thirds. His proposal to the Legislature budgeted enough money to run the ships only for the first three months of the fiscal year, through Oct. 1. Then, the fleet would be tied up.
Dunleavy's administration said the proposal would save the state $100 million. The governor argues that steep cuts are needed to balance Alaska's budget, while at the same time paying larger cash dividends to residents.
His administration is offering to pay up to $250,000 to a consultant to study privatization and other options for the ferry system.
"Most of rural Alaska doesn't have a ferry system. They don't have roads. They want to get from one community to another, they have to fly. And I agree it's an issue,” Dunleavy said last week on Talk of Alaska. “There is no easy solution to this problem. We're trying to find out if there's ways to make it more efficient, look at different runs, potentially consolidation, potentially privatization.”
Policymakers have, however, been studying possible reforms to the ferries for years, without reaching consensus. A 2017 report found that there are “no operating scenarios” where the system can pay for itself “and still fulfill its critical public service mission.”
Ticket sales generate a little more than one-third of the money required to run the ferries. For the LeCounte’s Angoon trip, fares would have to be five times higher — about $300 — for the route to pay for itself, according to an analysis provided by Dunleavy’s office.
If the ferry system shuts down, Thompson, who runs the Angoon store, said he could hire a barge to bring his freight to the village. But he predicted that prices would rise by about 25 percent, and fresh food would only come once a month.
"It's like a giant step back in time,” he said. “We would have fresh produce and dairy for a week or two of the month. And then, for the rest of the month, it would be all dry goods.”
Alaska operates nearly a dozen ferries, and they're particularly indispensable in Southeast, a 300-mile long archipelago where only a few towns are connected to the road system.
Schools use the ferries to move sports teams. When cars need maintenance, people float them to mechanics in Juneau. Sick people who have a hard time loading into bush planes ride ferries to doctor's appointments. The ships even carry the bodies of elders back to their hometowns.
The ferry system is “all things to all people, depending on the day,” said Kurt Rehfeld, who’s worked on Alaska ferries for 30 years – 19 of them on the LeConte. He described passengers almost like family; he knows their children and grandchildren.
“They travel to Juneau to keep their lifestyle alive. And we provide the opportunity for that,” Rehfeld said. “I think that's what government does. I think government is there to make all of our lives a little bit better.”
In interviews at the Capitol, lawmakers who represent legislative districts off the ferry system said they understand its importance to Southeast Alaska. But several Republicans said that they’re unwilling to keep subsidizing it at the same level.
Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt, the House minority leader, described his colleagues from Southeast as being resistant to necessary change.
“I think if they’d get on board and work with the governor — he’s not trying to destroy the system. He’s just trying to create a system that is functional and provides the service, but at a reduced cost,” Pruitt said. “Because we can’t continue to afford going about it the same way that we always have.”
He added: “Change is hard for anyone, and that’s not to fault Southeast. I think all of Alaska is going through that right now.”
Southeast Alaskans note that the ferry system is called the “marine highway,” and they have a comeback ready for people who question its cost: People in Anchorage and Wasilla, Dunleavy’s hometown, don't pay for plowing or maintenance on their state highways, either.
“You should start putting toll booths all over the place in the rest of Alaska,” said Albert Howard, a former Angoon mayor and tribal president who was eating lunch in the LeConte’s dining room. “Then, after you do that, then we'll say, 'We're just going to close this strip of highway.’ Do you understand now?”
But Bert Stedman, the Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said his region has to accept a new political reality. When the ferry system was established a half-century ago, Southeast Alaska's timber industry was booming. Now, Stedman says, “there’s no more pulp mills.”
“And we’ve gone from five senators to two. We have had a significant dilution, since the creation of the marine highway, of political influence. And that is continuing to erode,” Stedman said in an interview in his Capitol office. “We are not in the position where we can, frankly, dictate what we want to do. We just don't have the numbers.”
Stedman spoke just after a long meeting with Ben Stevens, Dunleavy’s policy advisor tasked with reshaping the state ferry system. Stedman said he's trying to work with the Dunleavy administration on a temporary plan to keep the ferries running, even if they're running less often, until lawmakers can agree on a longer-term vision for the system.
On the LeConte, passengers said they could live with once-weekly trips to Angoon and Tenakee, rather than twice-weekly. On Thursday, the ship carried a few dozen people, even though it has room for 225.
As the LeConte neared Angoon, passenger Kevin Frank was leaving the dining room with a couple of boxes – hot sandwiches he was bringing ashore as a treat for his family.
Like others, he was already thinking about how he'd cope if the ferry runs less often. Frank said he's looking for a new skiff, for harvesting seaweed and fishing for halibut and king salmon.
“Because Costco might not be an option,” he said.
Reprinted with permission.