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Area transportation plan focuses on ferries

Fearing funding declines, state seeks suggestions on where to make cuts

Posted: September 27, 2011 - 12:01am

State transportation planners told Juneau residents Monday evening they were looking for places where ferry service could be cut match the realities of new funding limitations.

“Federal aid appears to be on the decline,” said regional planner Andy Hughes.

At the same time, the state faces rising costs for fuel, labor — all of the components of what it takes to move people around.

“Something’s going to have to give,” he said.

In Juneau Monday, Hughes and other transportation officials held the first of a series of meetings around the region on the new Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, last updated in 2005.

Subsequent meetings in numerous other communities will continue through the months, with final public comments due by Nov. 4 and a draft plan possible by next spring.

The plan focuses on the best ways of moving people to and from Southeast, and between the region’s communities.

In fact, one of the questions Marine Systems Planner Jim Potdevin asked was whether the state should continue to move people to the region, or should drop routes across the Gulf of Alaska and to Bellingham and instead focus on moving people around within Southeast.

He acknowledged that they were looking at a full range of activities, including “alternatives that might not be attractive to you.”

But with Southeast’s population projected to decline over the long term, and oil production continuing to decline, Potdevin said top transportation officials have told regional officials to expect less money in the future.

“It’s not a rosy picture,” he said.

The Alaska Marine Highway System currently has 10 vessels in an area that was once served by six vessels – and those boats are carrying tens of thousands less passengers.

“We’re carrying fewer people with more boats and that’s inefficient,” he said.

The regional planners presented several alternatives that were under consideration, but said they were hoping to not just get comments on those options but to hear new suggestions as well.

“We’re looking to you for your ideas, and your comments on what we’ve looked at to date,” Hughes said.

Many of the plans they looked at involved fewer ferries, generally failing to replace aging vessels as they left the fleet and finding ways to reduce service.

One of the more radical options, along with eliminating the Bellingham run, was to use smaller shuttle ferries to connect stretches of roads.

That would involve building new roads, such as from Juneau north up Lynn Canal and across Kupreanof Island to Kake.

Hughes said if that road-heavy option was selected, the ferry system would not be responsible for foot traffic.

“We know that all people don’t have vehicles, the assumption is that if the demand is there commercial businesses would provide transit service,” Hughes said.

Some of the options among the alternatives under consideration already appeared to be in the process of being implemented, some audience members noted.

For example, one option is to build Alaska-class ferries to incorporate into the fleet. That project is already underway.

“It seems like you are not going to build the ferry and not use it,” a woman noted.

“That’s a fair assumption, we are going to use it,” Hughes said.

“At this point it’s going to be in the preferred alternative,” he said.

The state is also moving forward with the Juneau Access Project — the road up Lynn Canal — though final decisions and funding are still uncertain.

Officials said the best way to express views was to submit written comments.

Comments about the plan can be submitted, and a full copy of the plan can be viewed at http://dot.alaska.gov/satp.

While the planning process officially covers all transportation modes, the bulk of it appears to focus on the state’s ferry system.

Hughes said that’s where the critical need is, as some of the key vessels were built in 1963 and require regular, expensive overhauls.

“We’re running out of time as far as our ferry fleet goes,” Hughes said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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