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Ferry plans get widely panned

Delays criticized, though a few communities praise increase in service

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2008

State ferry officials are saying their proposed summer schedule provides even more service than last year, but community representatives from around Southeast are questioning the Alaska Marine Highway System's priorities, and even the ability of its managers.

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The system managers held the first of two days of teleconference meetings on Thursday to hear concerns about upcoming ferry schedules.

A great deal of concern about the lateness of the summer schedule was expressed in testimony and interviews.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, visited Juneau to present her testimony in person and was not happy with what she saw. She said she was "completely dismayed and a little bit irritated," about the prospect of not having a schedule yet.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, too, was unhappy with a ferry schedule still in flux months after tourists would like to book trips.

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"In any private corporation with a budget as big as the ferry system, people would have been fired for this," he said.

Under the proposed summer ferry schedules, one change involves taking the Malaspina off the Bellingham run, leaving just the Columbia.

That makes the mainline big Malaspina available to run daily in Lynn Canal, providing popular service between Skagway, Haines and Juneau.

That also frees up the fast ferry Fairweather to boost service to Sitka.

Testimony and comments from Skagway and Sitka praised those changes and the improved service, but they found less favor elsewhere.

"Why would you cut Bellingham in half?" Wilson asked.

Several people from communities in southern Southeast, including ferry crew members, questioned cutting the Bellingham service, which they said usually ran at high occupancy levels.

Business and tourism people in Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg said the ferry from Washington brought in valuable independent travelers, vital in their struggling communities.

"We've been told for many years that the Bellingham run is one of the biggest generators of revenue for the system," Elton said.

Sitka City Administrator John Stein was happier with his city's service.

"We get five fast ferries and three mainline ferries," he said. "That's just a huge improvement."

He said he understood that cutting the second Bellingham run was done to save money and make ferries available for elsewhere.

Another happy caller was Patricia Phillips, mayor of Pelican.

"This schedule is responsive to our needs," she said.

Pelican is expected to get biweekly service, but would still try to get weekly service if possible.

Hoonah and Angoon representatives said many local residents needed to travel to the Mount Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka, but said the connections to do so were often tricky. Often, they required hotel stays for people who couldn't afford them.

Charles Van Kirk, the Marine Highway's operations manager listened to the testimony, along with General Manager Capt. John Falvey.

Van Kirk said the proposed schedule involves 369.9 total vessel weeks of service, up slightly from last year.

One major decrease was only running the ocean-going Kennecott two weeks on and two weeks off.

That dismayed several crew members, many from Juneau, but Van Kirk said it saved a lot of money.

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



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