Opinions

A star and a ferry system

I saw a falling star last night, and it reminded me of our Alaska Marine Highway System. Both are in a free-fall. We cannot do much about the star, but maybe we can stop studying our ferry system and rescue it.

We cannot continue to serve the 35 coastal communities which require an ever-increasing subsidy. Significant fare increases have caused a substantial decline in ridership along with fewer sailing and with fewer ships operating. More than half of the fleet is laid up including two of our mainline vessels, the Columbia and the Malaspina, with no long-term operational plan.

I could elaborate as to the human failures associated with the decisions of past and current administrations and the lack of timely decisions which continually are put aside and instead another consultant is hired or another advisory committee is established and little happens. It is my intention to urge Southeast Alaska to reflect on the harsh reality of doing nothing. The mainliners will be scrapped and the Malaspina may be a reef. The Taku was sold for $171,000, yet they were able to run it to India. The two fast ferries sold for $5 million were built for almost $59 million. The road ahead is about to come to a dead end unless we work together to seek a solution. I hope this effort can be a start.

History

Despite the uncertainty and confusion, the AMHS has had the good fortune of maintaining a safety record second to none. The only incident I can recall happened in Wrangell Narrows when the Taku ran aground at low tide. When the ship floated and proceeded south, there was a new cocktail at the next port of call, Wrangell, called a “Taku on the Rocks.”

In the early 1960s, Govs. Bill Egan and Wally Hickel coordinated a lot of activity throughout the state, with improvements to the highways in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai and the Mat-Su. Highways to Haines and Skagway were improved as well, because the oil boom was on.

The idea of a marine highway for Southeast Alaska was proposed. The federal aid to highways and federal capital projects, along with the states funds, went into the construction of three ships — the Malaspina, the Taku and the Matanuska. Each had a capacity of nearly 500 passengers and 109 cars. I was in Wrangell in 1963 when the first ferry, the Malaspina, came to town. I helped secured the lines, along with the rest of the town.

Ridership increased so fast that a few years later, the foreign-built Wickersham was brought and operated under a Jones Act waiver. Each of the seven roadless communities had almost a vessel daily, either north or southbound. It was a growing, working and vibrant service doing what it was designed to do — operate a marine highway at a high level of morale and dedication to timely arrivals and departures. Currently, Southeast Alaska is only served by air and barge service. Cruise ships do not carry vehicles. There is another type of visitor that prefers to travel with their cars or campers, and these are the folks we want to come to Alaska on our ferries.

Proposal to renew the AMHS

The proposal I am suggesting is going to require money, coordination and cooperation among Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines and Skagway. The first step is to ascertain just how important the ferry system is to each community. What does it mean to the local economy and how much does it depend on the ferry system? What kind of a future would the community have without the availability of the AMHS? Does the community believe that a “new” exclusive Southeast Alaska marine highway authority could be formed with each of the seven communities participating?

Here’s how it might work: At least three of the mainline vessels might be leased from the state for at least a three-year term. Each community would hold an equity ownership in the “new authority” with the larger communities having a larger percentage. An example might be: Juneau holds 25%, Ketchikan 20%, Sitka 15%, and Skagway, Haines, Petersburg and Wrangell each hold 10%.

The new authority would also take over the Southeast terminals and operate a centralized reservation system. The three mainline vessels would operate with departures in season twice a week from Prince Rupert and from Bellingham. This would provide a feeder service for visitors and Alaskans throughout the state with an adequate marine highway system sufficient to accommodate campers, trucks, trailers and automobiles.

The communities, on a rotation, would have a member of their tourism committee in attendance at the camper conventions promoting the new AMHS‘s unique Alaska attractions.

Recognizing that the success of the proposal is dependent on adequate funding, a type of revenue bonding might be crafted. I have had some contact with bonding underwriters, and they suggested the initial offering might be for a term of three years. Each of the communities would guarantee a portion of the revenue bond equal to their agreed equity ownership of the Authority. The bonds might be sold to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority or the Permanent Fund Corporation. Repayment would come from ferry revenue and community tourist bed tax and sales tax. The state would continue to fund a portion of the expense of the new system based on a per-mile transit of the ferries. A new labor contract would have to be negotiated.

The extent that the service would have to continue to be subsidized can only be estimated. Subsidies are a reality to virtually all forms of transportation. Even Alaska Airlines receives a subsidy under Essential Air Service, covering a portion of the route of AMHS down our coastline from Anchorage, Cordova, Yakatat, Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan to Seattle.

The aftermath of the currant pandemic and the recognition that we are unlikely to have our summer cruise ship visitors gives us adequate time to work through the details with the seven communities toward the goal of taking over the Southeast portion of the AMHS and creating a new regional authority.

Southeast Alaska has a breadth of marine talent. Evidence is the structure of the Inter-Island Ferry between Hollis on Prince of Wales Island to Ketchikan. This system provides daily service with two vessels, the Prince of Wales and the Stikine. This was organized by the communities of Craig, Klawock, Hydaburg and Coffman Cove. It has been in operation some twenty years and is a major economic engine for the areas. I believe there is a pathway to follow on the success of the IIF.

I have been in contact with former Gov. Bill Walker, and he and I have had preliminary discussions about the transportation needs of our many small coastal communities. Suggestions include working with each of the communities to ascertain the needs along the lines of the former mail boat service. Vessels could be built in Alaskan yards utilizing AIDEA funding. Crews would be local residents. A type of ramp-loading crafts has been suggested which could handle small vans or vehicles.

I’m aware that the effort may have to overcome some difficult hurdles, but I’m reminded of an old political saying: “The best government is the one closest to home,” and my favorite, “Alaskans are hardy because we have to be.”

Frank Murkowski served as governor of Alaska from 2002-2006, and was a U.S. senator for Alaska for two decades prior to becoming governor.

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