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Through the fog: A case for the Alaska ferry system

  • Author: Frank Murkowski
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 30, 2019
  • Published December 30, 2019

The Tustumena, a ferry in the Alaska Marine Highway system, arrives in Homer on August 13, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

It’s time to come to grips with the bottom line. The Alaska Marine Highway System should be removed from the state Department of Transportation and be set up as a separate state-owned corporation similar to the Alaska Railroad.

The AMHS has expended more than a million dollars in consultant fees over the past 20-plus years. Without exception, these credible groups have agreed that a corporation would be the best solution, because it provides accountability which is lacking under the current structure.

The AMHS, currently under the DOT, must share with the Division of Highways and Airports for the prioritization of projects and maintenance under the authority of the commissioner. As Phillip Spaulding noted in his report, the AMHS has the largest tonnage of passenger vessels under the U.S. flag. He added, “Alaska ferry system is a big business, and it should strive to attract more passengers and grow the service as well as being a profit center unto itself.”

I believe it would be a mistake to now wade in to the morass of budgeting and operational scheduling without resolving the issue of restructuring the whole system under a corporate authority.

Further, I believe most Alaskans served by the ferry system believe it has gone adrift. Left to its current state, it will soon either flounder or sink. The time is now and the need is immediate. The Legislature, the governor and the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, along with Alaskans served by the ferry system, should take up the issue upon convening of the House and Senate in January. The system cannot remain afloat any longer without going on the rocks.

Frank Murkowski served as governor of Alaska from 2002-2006. He lives in Ketchikan.

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