On Tuesday night, Mike Neussl of the Alaska Marine Highway System tried to spread oil on troubled waters.
The 66 people listening to him did their best to light that oil on fire.
“One of the things we don’t hear from those legislators up north is when they’ll close the Parks Highway one or two days a week,” said one man, raising his voice to interrupt Neussl’s presentation.
In the fifth of six presentations across Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, Neussl - head of the ferry system - outlined the problems facing the ferry system and for more than three hours heard an earful from Southeast residents upset about those problems.
“Hang on a second - you guys are firing (questions) faster than I can answer them,” Neussl said at one point to soft laughter.
More often than not, the conversation was serious and, at times, emotional.
Karla Hart was among those who spoke about the ferry system’s impact on the tourism industry. “If I were trying to run a system into the ground, I would be doing just what you’ve been doing,” she said, describing how tour companies now deter RV drivers and independent travelers from using the ferry system because of its unpredictability.
“The state constitution tells us ... that everything belongs to us equally,” said Albert Howard by phone from Angoon, “yet other communities on a regular highway get a break. We pay the regular tire tax, we pay the gas tax ... and then we pay for our ride to Juneau.”
In the past three fiscal years, the Marine Highway has seen a $27 million cut to its operations budget and a $3 million drop in its capital budget, which pays for required annual maintenance.
The ferry system has gotten rid of bars and gift shops aboard ship, it’s gotten rid of discounts, increased cancelation fees and cut nearly 30 shoreside positions.
In 2016, the ferry Taku will stay docked all year, and in the summer, it may be joined by as many as three other ferries.
“We’re running out of low-hanging fruit. There’s no more bars to close, there’s no more gift shops to close. ... There’s not a lot left,” Neussl said.
Later, speaking in response to a question about Angoon losing all service for a month this winter, he added, “I think we’re headed back to the days where there was one vessel for a particular area, and when that vessel goes out for maintenance, there’s no service.”
One of the things that is left is a fare change, which the state expects to partially implement in the next year. Unfortunately, Neussl said, the state can’t charge tourists more than it does Alaskans. “The federal government frowns on us discriminating against other Americans.”
Another change, suggested by ferry crews, involves simply slowing down.
“One of the consistent messages we’ve been getting ... another way to save money is to slow down, Neussl said. “We’re going to look at those things and try to reduce the 10 million gallons of fuel we burn each year.”
Through various means, Neussl said, the Marine Highway expects to be able to bring one of the fast ferries back online to serve Sitka and Cordova this summer.
In the longer term, the state may need to consider selling one or more of its ferries, likely the laid-up Taku first.
“What do you all think of laying up a vessel in the Marine Highway System permanently?” Neussl said.
He added that during his tour of community meetings across the state, he’s heard that people don’t care how many ships are in the state’s fleet or which ships serve which communities ― they just want to make sure they get served.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott is expected to convene a meeting in Juneau in February of delegates from across the state to further discuss the future of the Marine Highway, but Sen. Dennis Egan, sitting in the audience, cautioned that it will be difficult to get relief from the political process.
Southeast Alaska and coastal Alaska in general doesn’t have the numbers in the Legislature to keep funding secure.
“We’re rural versus roaded now,” he said.