Decades ago, the Alaska Marine Highway System was a pillar of the state’s transportation network. Alaskans and visitors alike piled onto ferries running up and down the Inside Passage for a trip that was a little adventurous, a little luxurious — Dining rooms! Staterooms! Bars on board! — and close enough to the cost of driving through Canada that they were a strong contender for traveler dollars. Fast forward to the present, and the system is in grave danger of falling to pieces. Its only operating vessel until early March is the MV Lituya, which runs exclusively as a shuttle between Ketchikan and Metlakatla. Every other one of the 10 ships is laid up, either for extensive overhaul or as a cost-saving measure after severe state funding cuts last year. It’s an open question, given the state’s budget and the system’s funding, whether some will ever return to service. So what happened?
The answer is simultaneously too much and too little. Where we stand now is at a point of failure for which the groundwork was laid by decades of shifting priorities in Alaska’s government, as well as some questionable strategic decisions, few of which were to the benefit of the ferry system’s health.
An aging fleet
The biggest factor behind the current lack of ferries is simply their age: Most are near, at or beyond the design life for seagoing vessels of their size. Like icebreakers, ferries are big enough, heavy enough and use enough steel that they can’t run forever. Steel becomes brittle and cracks. Engines seize and need replacement.
Several of the vessels the ferry system acquired when the AMHS was first designed in the early 1960s are still in service, but the upkeep on a 50-year-old boat is substantial. The MV Matanuska, originally built in 1963, had just re-entered service in November after a more than $40 million overhaul that ran significantly over budget. It’s out of service until March because the brand new engines won’t operate. Its sister vessel, the MV Malaspina, also built in 1963, is in potentially permanent layup after a hull check found it would need a similar overhaul. Next to the Malaspina in layup is the flagship ferry MV Columbia, built in 1973. The Columbia is functional but has been deemed too costly to operate because of its size and facilities; since September, she has been in “money saving layup mode,” according to DOT Commissioner John MacKinnon. Also out of service are the MV LeConte (built in 1974) and MV Aurora (1977). Both need expensive hull repairs, but the state has decided it can only fix whichever is cheaper.
The MV Tustumena, known alternately as the “Trusty Tusty” and the “Rusty Tusty” depending on whether she’s in or out of service, has served admirably for more than 50 years, but has spent that half-century largely on the roughest route — the run out the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands to Unalaska and back. It’s reached the end of its service life and efforts are already underway to construct a replacement.
The long-serving MV Taku (1963-2015) and MV Bartlett (1968-2003), after being decommissioned, were sold by the state for a few hundred thousand dollars apiece. All of these ships are more than 40 years old; the Tustumena, Matanuska and Malaspina are over 50. Alaska is paying the price for the more than two decades (from 1977 to 1998) during which no new ferries were built; more than half the fleet is aging out of its realistic life.
Almost as costly as the ferry fleet’s age are the shifts in political winds that have led to an absence of long-term planning and vision that would have kept the ferries on a more even keel. The fast ferries FVF Chenega and FVF Fairweather, built in the early 2000s, cost $36 million apiece and were in service for less than 15 years before the state opted to sell the pair because they cost too much to operate. Their relatively thin aluminum hulls and jet propulsion systems proved inadequate for efficient operation in Southeast.
The plan was for them to be replaced by the just-built MV Tazlina and MV Hubbard, which have their own limitations. Funded during the early 2010s at the peak of the last oil revenue boom for Alaska, the state opted to forgo substantial federal matching funds and pay for them entirely with $120 million in state money so that it could ensure they were built in-state. Further, the vessels have no crew quarters, limiting their use to short runs between Haines, Skagway and Juneau. During design, the state opted to install bow and stern ramps, even though existing ferry docks can only accommodate side-loading. Both would need altering to fit with our current docks, as the shore infrastructure planned to support them was never constructed. As Alaska Marine Transportation Advisory Board chairman Robert Venables said in 2018, “When the politics change every four years, this is the type of result you get."
A downward spiral
The ferry system budget and its ridership have been declining for years. In the late 1990s, about 350,000 people per year traveled on the ferries; now that number has slid by about 30%. The fact is that travelers’ tastes change and while shipping and air travel options have become cheaper and easier, fewer folks are riding the ferries. And as passenger numbers have eroded, so has state funding, with funds being whittled away for half a decade before last year’s major cut. This has necessarily led to less frequent service in the name of preserving some level of efficiency. Anyone who’s operated a boat knows that once it leaves the dock, your costs are fixed, whether you have 50 passengers or 500. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s push last year to continue to chop ferry funding was a shock to many Alaskans who assumed the AMHS would always see broad state support, but the ferry system’s woes have been too long building to pin everything on one governor or one Legislature.
So what’s to be done? We should listen to those who know the system best. State-funded studies, including one released earlier this year, suggest that privatization isn’t feasible for the vast majority of ferry routes. But clearly, based on current conditions, the state has proven it’s not qualified to operate the system efficiently either. One option that could hold promise in protecting the ferries from political whims and the flawed decisions that have whipsawed the AMHS in the past is the establishment of one or several public corporations to operate the system. The university system could be a model, incorporating stakeholders from across the ferries’ service area to help govern and maintain it at a level that balances a reasonable cost to the state with necessary service to coastal communities that depend on the ferries for transporting people, cars and goods into their towns.
The ferry system needs a comprehensive long-term strategy that’s insulated from the short-term election cycle.