Alaska News

Will it be tourists or locals who lose out in cuts to Alaska ferry service?

JUNEAU -- Some of Alaska's most isolated communities fear state budget cuts will leave them even worse off as state ferry cuts hit residents before summer tourists.

"It's frustrating for us, because it seems like when there's no money, the rural communities get cut first," said Albert Howard, mayor of Angoon.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has long tried to balance different missions, including being the state highway that local residents use for shopping, doctor visits, school trips and numerous other activities of everyday life, while at the same time being the route by which tens of thousands of valuable independent travelers come to Alaska.

And some of those visitors provide an important tourism boost to small communities that aren't well positioned to benefit from the million visitors who arrive on cruise ships that mainly dock in the state's big cruise ports.

But now, that ferry system is facing cuts that state Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken says are bigger than ever. They come after the system lost more than $25 million from its budget over the past three years.

"I don't know if we can say these are unprecedented times but they're pretty close," Luiken told the Marine Transportation Advisory Board last fall.

But while the AMHS has been trying to balance competing interests, the Alaska Legislature has told it to favor summer tourist traffic over local-dominated winter traffic when it comes to deciding on cuts.

Howard said that's not what the state of Alaska intended when it created the state ferry system in the early 1960s in one of its first acts after statehood.

"They didn't say, 'Let's build a marine highway so we can bring tourists in and out of here'; I don't think that was the original intent,'" Howard said.

For Howard, the issue hits close to home because the city he leads is uniquely dependent on ferry service. Angoon, population 450, is located on Southeast's Admiralty Island, hemmed in by the Admiralty Island National Monument, and has no airport or even a barge landing.

That means groceries for the store and chemicals for the city's water treatment plant all have to come in by ferry. Float planes can land when the weather is good and daylight is adequate.

Howard said the city is already suffering from decreased ferry service, which is particularly hard on school groups and sports teams. That can mean that ferries aren't available and more expensive airplanes must be used, and basketball teams may travel with five to eight players instead of the 10 to 12 they could take on a ferry.

"We try to encourage our kids to stay in school and play sports; they have to earn the right to travel," Howard said.

"We have kids that are eligible and doing everything they are supposed to do, but we don't have the money to send them on the plane," he said.

Those winter cuts encouraged by the Legislature came in the form of "intent language" included in the state budget last year, added by powerful lawmakers without separate votes or any record of who added it to the budget.

The Attorney General's Office has advised the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and other departments that such "intent" language does not have the force of law, but bureaucrats who know their budgets will be before the same lawmakers in subsequent years are typically reluctant to ignore the Legislature's intent.

The budget this year called for the ferry system to maintain existing service during peak summer months, and said any cuts should come during non-peak months.

Marine Transportation Advisory Board Chair Robert Venables said the system is already looking for budget solutions that balance tourism and local service, and those goals are not necessarily in opposition to each other.

"... I think we need to maximize the tourist trade that comes through in order for those revenue opportunities to provide service in the offseason," he said.

Venables said the core tenet of what the marine highway does "is to provide basic transportation needs for Alaskans, those not served by road, especially."

The ferry system already tries, successfully, to balance the needs of local residents and tourists, said Mike Neussl, deputy commissioner for marine operations. But he told the MTAB that those goals weren't in as much conflict as is sometimes thought.

Bringing visitors can serve the needs of locals, he said.

"A lot of people in your communities rely on the marine highway to keep their campgrounds and restaurants full, hotels, those sorts of things," he said.

Venables said the Alaska Tourism Industry Association has provided a "much appreciated" resolution supporting more total funding for the ferry system.

In Haines, the Alaska Bald Eagle Foundation has already seen the impact of lack of ferries in the winter.

Its annual Bald Eagle Festival fundraiser last fall didn't get the special ferry runs it was hoping for and the attendance reflected that, said executive director Cheryl McRoberts.

"It was the worst," she said. "Our numbers were way down."

Bald eagle observers from around Southeast and elsewhere in the nation who come to watch eagles feeding before winter often fly into Juneau and take the ferry to Haines. The alternative, she said, is flying in "little 10-seater planes."

Without the ferry, the typical 300 visitors didn't arrive and attendance totaled only 141, she said.