JUNEAU — The Alaska Marine Highway System will begin charging more for tickets on ferries in demand, the agency announced Thursday as it released its winter schedule.
The new dynamic pricing system starts when a ferry hits 30% of its capacity on a given route. When that happens, ticket prices rise 5% for walk-aboard passengers and 10% for vehicles and cabins.
That surcharge rises as the ferry becomes closer to capacity. When the ferry is 90% full, a passenger ticket costs 30% more, and someone booking a vehicle or a cabin will pay 50% more.
The ferry system also announced new fees for changing bookings and a 10% surcharge for bookings near a special event.
Robert Venables, chairman of the state’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board, said the board discussed the fare change in July.
“I think the traveling public generally is aware that prices go up the closer you get to the date of your travel,” he said by phone, explaining that Alaska Airlines has “trained” Alaskans to expect that kind of an increase.
He said the increase was larger than he had envisioned. “While MTAB did recommend going toward dynamic pricing, they never saw details of this proposal,” he said, adding that if they had seen up to a 50% increase, they might have suggested something different.
Meadow Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, wrote by email in response to questions about the surge-pricing system that “AMHS is seeking to maximize revenue in an effort to become more self-sustaining, with the goal of being able to continue to provide service in the face of budget cuts. Many options were explored, starting this spring when it was evident that budgets would be reduced. The Legislature has been discussing and recommending that DOT&PF/AMHS implement this type of pricing structure for several years. Until recently, the AMHS reservations system was not capable of implementing this type of pricing structure.”
The fare hikes were announced as the system confirmed further reductions in sailings because of budget cuts drafted by the Alaska Legislature and confirmed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. This year, the ferry system’s budget was cut 31%, from $140 million to $96.4 million.
The sailing calendar shows all of the cuts proposed in a July draft schedule have been enacted. Cordova, for example, has no ferry sailings scheduled between Sept. 20 and the end of May 2020.
Kodiak has no sailings between Jan. 11 and April 24. At the end of January, Juneau goes from daily sailings to two sailings — both on the weekend — through the start of March.
All service to the Canadian port of Prince Rupert has ended because of a customs dispute involving the Canadian and U.S. federal government. In an email, Prince Rupert’s mayor said he will be traveling to Juneau this month for talks with DOT and state officials.
Bailey said the ending of the Prince Rupert route “did not free up service” elsewhere. “Not running to Prince Rupert saves about $9,000 per week in fuel costs, but we lose about $20,000 in revenue, so it does not free up operating funds to provide service elsewhere.”
A labor strike earlier this summer cost the system $3 million in lost revenue. Bailey said that although that lost revenue didn’t directly lead to any additional service reductions, “it did remove our ability to make adjustments to the schedule.”
Clay Koplin, mayor of Cordova, was thankful that although the winter schedule didn’t change from the July draft, his community is getting an extra week of service before the winter schedule begins Oct. 1. Cordova doesn’t have an overland highway, and many fishermen are still in town for the city’s silver salmon fishery.
Outbound sailings were entirely booked through Sept. 13, but now fishermen have an extra week.
“They’ve been backlogged, and people frankly didn’t have an option. They thought they were going to have to strand their cars or boats,” he said.
Chelsea Haisman, executive director of the pro-fishery organization Cordova District Fishermen United, said the silver salmon fishery sometimes runs into October, and even with the extension, it will mean an early end for many. The fishery includes 120 permit holders who live in Wasilla and about that many who live in Anchorage, she said, explaining that Alaskans statewide have been affected.
“I hope fishermen are able to use this extra week to get their gear moved back and forth. It definitely shows that there’s still a need for ferry service,” she said.