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Head of Alaska's ferry system calls for reduced fleet

JUNEAU — The head of the Alaska Marine Highway System says the ferry system's fleet needs to downsize amid a proposed $5 million cut to operations in the next fiscal year.

Capt. Michael Neussl told the Alaska House Transportation Committee Thursday that the ferry system only has funding for nine of its 11 ships, The Juneau Empire reported.

"The fleet size, in my estimation and opinion, needs to shrink back," he said. "We will need to divest of some vessels, and we need to start looking at that sooner, rather than later."

With the governor's current budget proposal, which includes a $5 million cut to ferry system operations, the Marine Highway expects to reduce its service to 320 operating weeks, a level not seen since 2004.

Between 2000 and 2003, the Marine Highway offered between 291.7 and 326.6 weeks of service with just nine ships.

The ferry system counts one ferry running for one week as one operating week. If all 11 ferries are running in a given week, the system is providing 11 operating weeks.

Lawmakers on Thursday were open to Neussl's proposal and considered which ships should be sold. Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, suggested the Fairweather and Chenega be the first ships to go.

"Maybe we should be selling the fast ferries first," he said. Judging by their maintenance and operation cost, "it certainly seems like those should be at the top of the list."

Neussl said the first to go would likely be the ferry Taku, which has been laid up since last year and is 53 years old. The Marine Highway will not get rid of the ferry Tustumena, he said. The Tustumena is one of the few vessels able to serve Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians.

Republican Rep. Shelley Hughes of Palmer, co-chairwoman of the transportation committee, speculated that a nine-ship fleet might resemble the ferry system of a decade ago.

"Ten years ago, it wasn't quite so bad; we had a pretty good state 10 years ago," she said. "We can do this; it's going to be OK. You'll still be able to get from Point A to Point B."