Alaska News

Alaska ferry system faces steep new cuts next summer

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Marine Highway System is proposing tying up ferries and slashing service next summer, in anticipation of further cuts in next year's budget.

"This is disconcerting, to say the least, for those of us who rely on the Marine Highway System," said Robert Venables of Haines, chair of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

In a Tuesday letter to businesses and communities served by ferries, AMHS general manager John Falvey said the cuts are "based on an assumed funding level," but he maintained essential, core services to ferry-dependent communities would continue.

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is proposing the ferry system keep three of 11 ships at the dock all summer, including its two newest and one of its more than 50-year-old original ferries.

Summer service this year included a planned 184.3 weeks of cumulative service during the May-to-September season. The tentative plan for next year calls for 145 weeks of cumulative service, a decrease of more than 20 percent.

Because the busy summer season has tourist, business and construction users trying to schedule travel before the new budget takes effect July 1, the department must adopt a schedule before it has an official budget. This year, the final state budget was not adopted until June.

Among the most notable changes to the schedule is the decision to take the state's two "fast ferries," the Fairweather and Chenega, out of service. Those boats, built in 2004 and 2005, have been controversial since they were approved for construction during the administration of former Gov. Tony Knowles.

Able to operate at speeds of 32 knots, about twice as fast as other ferries, they also consume fuel at a prodigious rate, two to three times that of other ferries, including some much larger.

Also slated to be taken out of service is the mainline ferry Taku, built in 1963, which has not undergone upgrades similar to those for sister ships Matanuska and Malaspina.

Venables said the advisory board only learned of the proposed cuts Tuesday and had no role in crafting them.

"The commissioner is out of the office today, but I want to get a little more clarity on the intent, or why they believe this is the new sustainable level of service that they're going to be able to provide," he said.

DOT spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the changes are being forced by the state's fiscal situation.

"All state departments are working with reduced budgets due to low oil prices," he said.

DOT is anticipating additional cuts similar to last year's 12.5 percent cuts, he said.

The department also warned communities its ability to provide extra ferries for community special events would be "extremely limited" under the new schedule.

The department will hold a teleconferenced public hearing on the proposal Nov. 4, with testimony from Southeast communities in the morning and Southwest and Southcentral communities in the afternoon. Information the opportunities to provide public input is on the ferry system's website.

Venables said the advisory board also expects to hold a November meeting prior to final schedule adoption.