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DOT hears concerns about replacing ferries with roads

New Southeast Transportation Plan stirs controversy with alternatives that cut some ferry runs

Posted: April 4, 2012 - 12:12am
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Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee listens to Commissioner Marc Luiken of the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities at the Capitol on Tuesday.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee listens to Commissioner Marc Luiken of the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities at the Capitol on Tuesday.

State transportation officials are backing away from one of the most controversial alternatives in the new Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, saying it wasn’t really an alternative they were considering at all.

The plan’s alternative that calls for abandoning ferry service from Bellingham and across the Gulf of Alaska wasn’t really an alternative that was under consideration. That alternative, one of several, including doing nothing at all, should really be considered a “concept” they were looking at, said Marc Luiken, commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

“That’s the term we used when we really were talking about concepts,” Luiken said.

Under the option with the most roads, the southernmost point on the Alaska Marine Highway System would be Prince Rupert, in British Columbia. A system of short shuttle ferries and road segments would provide connections throughout Southeast.

Luiken said that option, on which criticism has been focused, was not being proposed and would not be in the final plan in that form.

“It’s not an alternative, it’s a concept, I want to make sure that’s very clear,” Luiken said.

The road-heavy concept would eliminate the ferry system’s two big revenue generators, the run between Juneau and the upper Lynn Canal ports of Haines and Skagway, and the run south to Bellingham.

“When you eliminate the routes that are lucrative, the Bellingham route, the Lynn Canal Route, what effect will it have on ticket prices for the rest of the system?” asked Mike Korsmo, a Marine Transportation Advisory Board member from Skagway.

Members of the military who want to avoid border crossings, Korsmo said, heavily use the route across the Gulf of Alaska. They’d lose that option.

“It’s a major concern for me, and I think a lot of people,” he said.

Southeast Region DOT director Al Clough said the controversial alternative in the Southeast plan was something of a “straw man” that staff knew would be controversial.

It was “giving them something to shoot at,” he said.

Luiken said the department would not include any of the alternatives in its final plan without changes.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said the strategy of attempting to draw fire might not have been the best one to use.

“You don’t have to invite people around here to shoot at things,” Huggins said.

Clough said he hoped to have the plan done by the end of the year, or even by the fall. That may not be that may not be possible, however.

“It’s going to take the time it is going to take,” he said.

It is still early in the process of developing the plan, Luiken said.

The ferry system also heard compliments from Korsmo, Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, and others about the progress on building a new Alaska-class ferry and the system’s efficient operation in recent years.

“We’d be in deep trouble if we didn’t have the Alaska Marine Highway System that was developed just after statehood,” said Egan.

The committee praised the decision to standardize vessel design for the new ferry, and possibly build it in Ketchikan.

Department staff said they are close to reaching a deal with that city’s Alaska Ship and Drydock on construction.

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

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