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Budget ax falls on a bit of Alaskana, the bars on Alaska state ferries

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 27, 2015

JUNEAU -- For years, the best way for visitors and newcomers to Alaska to learn about the place was to find a self-proclaimed "Alaskan" in a bar on a state ferry, buy a round of drinks and listen to the tall tales.

Before the rise of cruise ships in Alaska waters, independent travelers packed ferries during the summer, while in the winter it was mostly residents, new and old, using the ferries and meeting in the bars.

In the winter, ferry bars were also where adults could hang out and avoid the groups of school kids and sports teams traveling between cities.

But now, the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities says it can no longer afford to keep subsidizing money-losing ferry bars, and will close them this year.

One of those who learned about Alaska in that manner was author Joe McGinniss, whose Alaska classic "Going to Extremes" began with his experience in a bar while riding the ferry Malaspina to Alaska. In the book's opening chapter he recounts hearing his first stories of the infamous drug and alcohol use of the pipeline-era.

But times are changing, and the ferry system has been losing $100,000 or more annually on each of its bars, it said, despite only operating them on its larger ferries. They're now a luxury the Alaska Marine Highway System no longer thinks it can afford, and will this year end those operations as each ferry gets its annual overhaul.

Officials had earlier announced that new ferries now under construction would not include bars. Now, the existing bars on the Kennicott, Malaspina, Matanuska, Tustumena, Taku and Columbia will be done away with as well.

Earlier, a bar had been taken out of the LeConte, but that was primary for management reasons, ferry officials said.

The loss of bars will be unpopular with a segment of the ferry-riding public, said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan. In Ortiz's island-based legislative district, ferries are a crucial part of life.

But given the declining availability of state money, changes are inevitable, he said.

The loss of the the ships' gift shops, ordered done away with by the Legislature last year, the loss of bars this year and schedule changes will each have an individual impact, Ortiz said.

"This is just the latest in a long line of things they've done to become more cost efficient," Ortiz said. "I don't think this particular one is going to cause much of an uproar."

But Ortiz worried that the total impact of changes, especially when those changes begin to hit ferry schedules more, would be negative.

"Whether it's the ship's store, the bar, certainly when you start reducing scheduling because of budgetary issues, those things are going to have an impact," he said.

That's already been seen when schedule changes made it difficult for school groups to coordinate travel, he said.

Ortiz is a retired teacher and coach who has frequently traveled on ferries supervising school groups. When those groups aren't able to use ferries for their travel, it drives up costs for the districts and limits student participation.

But DOT's acting Commissioner John Binder said that closing the bars will help prevent service cuts.

"Closing bars on state ferries creates immediate savings for the state and allows the department to limit reductions in ferry service to communities," he said.

Total savings from the closures is anticipated to be $750,000 annually, said DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow.

That amount was estimated from the salary costs of bartenders, minus the bars' take from their markup on alcohol. None of the bars was profitable, he said.

Most ferry travelers have seen the packed bars on Alaska ferries -- so why are they losing money?

The problem, Woodrow said, was that while the vessels traveling to community festivals, tournaments and other popular events are often seen packed with customers, the vessels providing essential day-to-day service are often less than half-full and the bars get little business.

"A majority of the time, those vessels aren't full -- or even half-full," Woodrow said.

The bartenders who work on the vessels are members of the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific. They'll be reassigned other jobs, and as the ferry system typically adds staff for the summer, ferry officials say it is unlikely that there will be layoffs.

Beer and wine will remain available on ferries in the vessels' cafeterias during meal hours and in single-serving containers, Woodrow said.

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