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Ferry system makes changes to accommodate horses, owners

Posted: December 18, 2011 - 1:19am

There’s likely to be more horses on Alaska state ferries after the Alaska Marine Highway System announced a change in policy last week.

The announcement appears to solve the most serious concerns expressed by horse owners, but some smaller issues may remain.

The issue arose earlier this year when a policy requiring anyone traveling with livestock to post a refundable $1,000 cleanup deposit drew criticism from horse owners at a Marine Transportation Advisory Board meeting.

Those people said it prevented many from traveling to events such as the Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines, and was particularly hard on volunteer groups such as 4-H.

The state heard those concerns “loud and clear,” said Mike Neussl, deputy commissioner for marine operations for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

After a two-month review, the ferry system said it could make several changes to its policies and still ensure the Alaska Marine Highway System is protected, he said.

The policy change was announced at a MTAB meeting last week.

One of the biggest reasons for making the change, he said, was that those traveling with horses have already been responsible and have cleaned up after any spills. That means that the ferry system doesn’t have to spend its time and money to do so.

“We haven’t actually kept any deposits from anyone,” he said. “They’re responsible, and that’s good.”

Among the changes are dropping the deposit from $1,000 to $500, and allowing it to be made in some way other than cash. That may include a credit card hold or a check, he said.

Not only does AMHS not need to hold the cash, it doesn’t really want to, he said.

“We just need the ability to access that should there be a spill we have to clean up,” Neussl said.

Neussl said one associated issue, horse owners wanting to get off ships at interim stops to exercise their animals, could best be done by using the current system.

For example, he said, a Juneau resident traveling to Bellingham who wants to be able to exercise his horse in Ketchikan should simply buy one ticket from Juneau to Ketchikan, and then another from Ketchikan to Bellingham, he said.

That allows vehicles to be appropriately positioned on the vessels for getting on and off at each stop, he said. A small ticket price increase with that method helps compensate the ferry system for the additional work, he said.

Some Juneau residents who participated in the teleconferenced meeting did not appear to have any problems with the new policy, but did ask about some other issues such as bedding materials in trailers and the amount of hay they can carry with them.

Capt. John Falvey, ferry system manager, said safety concerns mean they don’t want large amounts of flammable materials on board, but would work with travelers.

Juneau’s Jim Sidney said the ferry system was being too strict with its environmental regulations, and said Alaska didn’t need as many regulations as might be needed in the more populated state of Washington.

“Washington state regulations are just killing us up here,” he said.

Neussl said the rule against washing animal waste over the side, as was past practice, is not a Washington or Alaska rule, but instead a federal Environmental Protection Agency regulation, which can’t simply be ignored.

“As much as I might like to do that, I don’t know that I’m able to do that,” he said.

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

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