Alaska can save its summer visitor season if lawmakers act now

COVID-19 has had a major impact on Alaska’s economy. Tourism by cruise ship appears to be nonexistent for the 2021 season, and those businesses that cater to tourism face a troubled future. Visitors to South Franklin Street in Juneau, or along the boardwalks in Ketchikan and Skagway, are met with boarded-up windows and closed signs. The impact extends on to Anchorage, Kenai, Fairbanks and throughout our entire state. The loss of state revenue through sales tax, passenger head tax and loss of jobs across the board, especially those serving the visitor industry has been devastating, and we are seeing the engine of our summer economy slipping away with each day that passes.

There is no question in my mind that this pandemic has created a detrimental combination of factors that should rise to the level of an emergency declaration by our state administration and our governor.

The circumstances that single out Alaska are unique and were clearly a result of the pandemic. When Canada closed its borders for all but essential traffic, Alaska was left with no way to accommodate vehicular traffic both to and from our state to the Lower 48. The access to the Alaska Highway at the British Columbia border, and the highways from Haines and Skagway were closed through both British Columbia and the Yukon. With these closures and the absence of cruise ship traffic, the only access to Alaska was and is still by air.

There is another alternative for Alaskans and that is the Alaska Marine Highway System. The governor and the Department of Transportation should take two mainline vessels, the Columbia and the Malaspina, out of winter layup. One vessel should be operated from Bellingham to Seward and the other from Bellingham to Southeastern Alaska. The current fare structure is unrealistic and would need to be adjusted to be more competitive to make this work.

Former Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao authorized $2.6 billion for aid to rural areas with no matching funds required, along with funding for operational costs. Further funding is likely to become available to the state from President Joe Biden’s recently proposed $2.3 trillion Infrastructure plan. The president’s announcement included $621 billion for surface transportation. Our Marine Highway System should qualify for funding from this source, and the governor and our delegation could be instrumental in including our ferry system.

There is no definitive date when the pandemic will end, and we must act now before the summer gets underway. The passenger demand will be there if we make the decision now; I join with Alaskans who recognize the contribution the Marine Highway System makes to both the economy and the communities of coastal Alaska. We look forward to receiving a response from our governor and urge the state Department of Transportation to reach a timely decision.

Frank Murkowski is a former governor and United States senator from Alaska.

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Frank Murkowski

Frank Murkowski is a former governor and United States senator from Alaska.