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Ferry sailings spike during Celebration

Chamber says Juneau reaps benefits of the event; ferry system serves more travelers

Posted: June 19, 2012 - 11:02pm  |  Updated: June 20, 2012 - 7:46am

Sailings to and from the Auke Bay ferry terminal were up during the week of Celebration earlier this month, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities — but don’t expect that bump in revenue to buoy Juneau’s economy.

Nearly twice as many people traveled to or from Juneau via the Alaska Marine Highway System from June 5 to June 11 as did during the seven-day period before. The spike suggests that ferry tourism surged during the cultural festival, which was staged from June 6 to June 9 by the Sealaska Heritage Institute in downtown Juneau.

But Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation, said despite the increase in revenue associated with the 6,135 passengers and 1,523 vehicles that passed through the Auke Bay terminal during that week, Juneau was unlikely to see much, if any, of the money.

“All that revenue goes back into operating the ferries,” said Woodrow.

Because the AMHS is a state-run agency, a division of the Alaska Department of Transportation, none of the proceeds from ferry passenger fares or onboard purchases go toward the City and Borough of Juneau.

Even if they did, Woodrow added, the AMHS is not a net revenue generator for the state of Alaska. Federal transportation funding helps support the system, which also serves coastal communities in British Columbia and Washington.

“The ferry system operates at a loss, so in order for it to pass on profits, profits would have to be made,” Woodrow said.

Although Juneau is unlikely to have drawn much of a direct benefit from the increased business the AMHS did during the week, Woodrow said events like Celebration that can drive up the AMHS’ usage are beneficial for Alaska.

“It’s good for the state,” Woodrow said of the boost in revenue associated with the increased sailings during Celebration. More revenue, he explained, means more money for ferry upkeep and other overhead costs — and for a system that operates at a loss, anything that helps mitigate that loss helps.

Cathie Roemmich, executive director of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, said that the AMHS’ employees in Juneau do provide a benefit to the local economy, especially when the system is relatively prosperous.

“It means a lot more to have (employees) here in Juneau than it means to have them in Washington,” Roemmich said. “We wish that everyone who worked here lived here.”

As Celebration draws many visitors from outlying communities like Angoon, Hoonah and Kake, which are not served by major airlines but are connected to Juneau via the AMHS, Roemmich said the ferry system is key to allowing Juneau to function as a regional hub of Native culture.

“Celebration is a huge traditional thing for the tribes in Southeast Alaska, if not all over. So it’s huge that they come here, and Juneau really appreciates that they’ve chosen Juneau to celebrate their heritage here,” Roemmich said. “The Alaska Marine Highway is critical to a successful Celebration.”Between May 29 and June 4, the period prior to Celebration, 3,412 passengers and 1,037 vehicles sailed to or from Juneau aboard AMHS ferries, according to information provided by the Alaska Department of Transportation. Between June 12 and June 18, just 2,997 passengers and 945 vehicles made the ferry voyage.

Total fares were also up during the June 5 to June 11 period, surging from $373,515 in the previous period to $522,931 over the week of Celebration, before falling again the subsequent week, but Woodrow cautioned those figures included fares purchased for sailings outside the period in which they were purchased. He said the passenger and vehicle counts are more telling.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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