For the past few years, there has been a concentrated effort to develop a long-term solution to the many problems of our ferry system. The effort has been led by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, or DOT/PF. The transportation agency has hired several consulting firms over the years including the Spaulding group, the McDowell group, the Northern Economic group and the governor’s repositioning group, at a cost to the state of several hundred thousand dollars.
These reports have done a good job in identifying problems, yet very few of their proposed solutions have been acted upon. One consistent recommendation of all the consultants is to remove the ferry system from DOT/PF and put it into a separate state-owned corporation with its own budget — like the state-owned Alaska Railroad Corp.
As a standalone corporation, management of the ferry system would be clearly visible to the public and could be held accountable. As part of DOT/PF, the ferry system must currently compete for funding and management with the Division of Highways and the Division of Airports.
The board of directors could be proposed by the Southeast Conference for submission to the governor. Directors should have expertise in maritime and engineering matters, as well as marketing.
Neither the governor nor the Legislature has yet acted upon the consultants’ recommendation for establishing a separate Marine Highway Corp. Even so, the long-term solution might be occurring right under our very noses by default.
Either by accident or design, we may be now experiencing the demise of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Excuses range from a lack of state funding to termination of routes to Prince Rupert and high maintenance costs of the older vessels.
Ridership is down and declining due to the lack of service. Some communities today will receive only one or two sailings a month during the winter. Average annual ridership for the 10-year period 2004 to 2014 was 250,000 passengers. In 2019, the ferry system carried 135,000 passengers.
A quick review of the scheduled sailings suggests that the disposal of several of our mainline vessels is resulting and will continue to result in substantially less service. The Taku was sold to an Indian broker for scrap. Our fast ferries, which cost $36 million apiece, have been sold at a fraction of their cost. The Malaspina has been laid up in Ketchikan for nearly two years at tremendous cost, and the Columbia has not operated for most of the current year. Is the administration preparing the case to sell these vessels?
The Alaska cruise industry is looking forward to a dramatic recovery as the pandemic recedes. Alaska is the No. 1 visitor destination for passengers from down below.
But there is another type of traveler who prefers traveling with his/her car or camper on which the ferry system should focus. That traveler wants the option to visit his/her choice of venues and experience the magic of Alaska’s outlying areas. The Alaska Marine Highway System is the largest and the only system for people who want to travel with their automobile. Why has the ferry system not reached out to this type of visitor? Where is the marketing?
What should we expect from the Dunleavy administration in the 2022 legislative session? The fall revenue forecast shows that there will be a significant increase in general funds due to a sharp rise in the price of oil. This revenue increase along with the federal infrastructure funding can provide our ferry system with the opportunities to grow, but we must plan now.
We have discussed this matter long enough. Now is the time to transfer the ferry system to the state-owned corporation that the consultants have long proposed. The effort should be led by the Southeast Conference Transportation Committee. I urge the committee to adopt a resolution for submission to the 2022 legislative session that would transfer the Marine Highway system to a new state-owned corporation.
Frank Murkowski is a former governor and U.S. senator from Alaska. He lives in Ketchikan.
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