My Turn: Alaska Marine Highway System at a crossroads

Future in doubt for ferry system as fares increase and riders decrease

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2007

Gov. Sarah Palin recently released her proposed state-operating budget for fiscal year 2008. This budget includes $152,316,300 to operate the Alaska Marine Highway System for another year.

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That's a 12 percent increase over last year ($135,883,300) and a 51 percent increase over two years ago ($100,827,000). The state subsidy for the marine highway has increased as well, from $55 million two years ago to a proposed $98 million dollars for this coming fiscal year. Again that's a 78 percent increase in just two years. This is especially damning because the marine highway subsidy comes directly out of the state's general fund and must compete with many other state programs such as education, health and social services and community revenue sharing.

Several years ago the Legislature told the Department of Transportation to either find ways to increase revenues on the marine highway or reduce the cost of operating the ferries. In other words, reduce the state subsidy. Because Southeast Alaska carries approximately 80 percent of all the marine highway passenger and vehicle traffic (20 percent in Western Alaska), it is pretty obvious that any changes must begin in Southeast Alaska.

The traveling public has seen many fare increases on the marine highway. It will now cost a family of four with a standard automobile $450 just to travel round-trip from Juneau to Haines (only 71 miles away), and that only picks up about 36 percent of what it will cost the State to transport them there. The overall system will now be subsidized to the tune of about $98 million. That's equal to $145 for every man, woman and child in Alaska.

Over the years, as traveler costs have increased, ridership began to decline. It's the old economics 101 syndrome. As fares become more expensive, fewer travelers can afford to use the ferries. In fact usage has dropped so much, there were fewer passengers in 2004 (290,625) than there were in 1979 (294,053) even though the population of Southeast Alaska increased by 32 percent, the ferry fleet expanded by four more vessels, and several new communities were added to the system after 1979. Figure that one out.

Are there any solutions to this dilemma that do not require raising fares on the traveling public to a point where no one can afford to ride the ferries? There are many in Alaska who seem to have their heads in the sand and won't even admit that there's a serious problem. All one hears from them is "We Need to Improve Ferry Service," but they provide no solutions as to how it can be accomplished while reducing the burden on the state treasury.

For anyone who might be interested, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities does have a solution that certainly makes sense to me. In 2004 the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan was completed, identifying exactly how we can improve surface transportation throughout Southeast in a manner that will provide improved access and service, reduce traveler costs significantly and still allow a major reduction in state subsidies.

At this point in time, we are at a crossroads as to what direction the marine highway will take over the next 40 years. Will it be the continuation of the existing ferry system with the replacement of several mainline ferries estimated to cost $150 million each? Will it be even higher user-fares and increased state subsidies? Or, will the Palin administration follow the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan that recommends utilizing and expanding the existing road system in Southeast Alaska and connecting those roads with low-cost shuttle ferry service?

As a fiscally responsible citizen of Alaska, I support the latter recommendation. And yes, the Lynn Canal Highway is a major component in the success of the extended road/shuttle ferry service concept for Southeast Alaska. The marine highway has had more than 40 years to prove the current model works and look where we are today. Do we want to start solving the problem or continue with the most costly transportation system in Alaska? Gov. Palin, it's your call.

• Rich Poor has 31 years of transportation experience, and is a former Juneau Assembly member.

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