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Alaska’s coastal communities prepare for big change as ferry cuts arrive

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: September 6
  • Published September 4

The Alaska Marine Highway System ferries LeConte, left, and Malaspina at the Auke Bay Terminal on Thursday, July 25, 2019. (Michael Penn/The Juneau Empire via AP)

After almost five decades in Unalaska, Mayor Frank Kelty is ready for a change. In October, he’ll end his second term as mayor of the largest fishing port in the United States and will move from the Aleutians to sunny Southern California.

He’s still considering his plans for the future, but he knows at least one thing: He’s not taking the ferry.

Kelty, like mayors and residents of all 35 coastal communities served by the Alaska Marine Highway System, is awaiting the release of this winter’s ferry schedule. That release is scheduled Thursday, according to an email sent to the Kodiak Island Borough Mayor by the marine highway.

While coastal towns and cities have grown accustomed to reduced service amid several years of cuts, the 31% cut approved by the Legislature this year and signed into law by Gov. Mike Dunleavy means ferry service is no longer a question of how often a ship comes — it’s a question of whether it comes at all.

In July, a draft schedule called for many cities to be without service for months, and Prince Rupert, the sole Canadian port served by the ferry system, was cut from the marine highway’s route map on Wednesday.

That cut was accompanied by word that state officials were unable to resolve a long-running problem with customs enforcement across the border. Earlier this year, partially because of those problems, Prince Rupert was suggested as a prime target for budget cuts, but a spokeswoman said the budget was not a factor in the end of service.

In Unalaska, Thursday’s expected announcement will come ahead of the last ferry run of the season. Along the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula, ferry service stops in September, and Kelty worries whether the ships will return.

The Tustumena approaches Cold Bay on Sunday, July 19, 2015. (Marc Lester / ADN)


In February, Dunleavy had proposed a budget that would have ended all ferry service after Oct. 1. He subsequently accepted a smaller reduction proposed by the Legislature.

“I’m afraid he’s going to double down, just like Trump does. The things he doesn’t get this year, he’s going to make up for next year,” Kelty said of the governor’s cost-cutting plans.

Dunleavy spokesman Matt Shuckerow said by phone that the governor wants a collaborative process for next year’s budget. He pointed out that the state has hired a marine consultant to come up with a new plan for the marine highway and that the governor didn’t initially veto any ferry funding beyond the cuts proposed by the Legislature.

“I think the governor has highlighted his desire to work with Alaskans to work with communities and all stakeholders on the budget and to go through a process that would be different from this year,” Shuckerow said. “There can be a lot of conversation about this.”

In the meantime, coastal communities are coping with uncertainty about the result of that process. In Kodiak, borough mayor Dan Rohrer also operates a chain of fast-food restaurants.

“I’m losing one of my key employees two months early because it’s the only time she can guarantee a ferry,” he said. The woman had planned to leave in December, but she didn’t want to gamble on the availability of a ferry.

As a businessman, he’s annoyed because he now has to work seven days per week himself to cover the gap until he can hire someone new. As a mayor, he’s worried about what comes next.

“It effectively cuts us off from the rest of Alaska with the exception of air travel,” he said of what happens if ferry service ends. In July, a draft schedule called for no Kodiak ferry service for three and a half months, almost four times as long as the interruption caused by a labor strike earlier this year.

That strike cost the ferry system $3 million in lost revenue and has the potential to exacerbate the budget cuts. Dunleavy vetoed an attempt by the Legislature to add $5 million to the ferry system budget that could have offset the strike-related losses.

Rohrer, like Kelty, worries about additional cuts next year. Kodiak is home to the nation’s largest Coast Guard base, and each summer brings a wave of transfers.

“Kodiak is one of the larger communities in our state, and to have that cut off for three and a half months is wrong,” Rohrer said.

Down Mill Bay Road from Rohrer’s restaurants is Cost-Savers, a grocery store and Costco outlet owned and operated by Al Large. Talking by phone from his store, Large said he gets customers from the nearby ferry-served communities of Port Lions and Ouzinkie.

“Their daily routine is to come in on the ferry in the morning, do their town shopping, then catch the ferry on the return trip later that day or the next day,” he said.

The M/V Tustumena, a 296-foot ferry of the Alaska Marine Highway System, departs Homer on Thursday evening, September 1, 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Without the ferry, there’s no way for them to drive to Kodiak and no way to drive loaded cars home. Small planes can make the trip, but there are limits on how much they can carry, and a skiff ride to town can be canceled by bad weather.

His business gets its own shipments via Carlile trucking, and when those trucks don’t come by ferry, they can come aboard Matson Lines’ large ships.

That isn’t possible for Toshua Parker, who runs a business similar to Large’s in the small Southeast town of Gustavus, west of Juneau. Each week, Parker’s business loads groceries from Juneau and sends them to Gustavus for sale.

“There really is no alternative to the ferry,” he said.

During the recent strike, he considered chartering a landing craft, but at $11,000 per voyage, it wasn’t feasible. His business owns a few small boats, so they did the sailing themselves to tide things over, but it wasn’t a permanent solution, and it wouldn’t be practical in winter storms, he said. Only the ferry is reliable enough.

“We don’t have barge service, we don’t even have a barge facility to receive service,” he said. “There’s just not a lot of options out there.”

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