McDowell study reveals reduced ferry service for Lynn Canal

Empire editorial

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2002

In January of 2000, Gov. Tony Knowles issued a press release announcing a pledge to accelerate the SE Transportation Plan. "The Southeast Transportation Plan I released last year involved significant changes to the Marine Highway System, including a new generation of fast ferries that operate a level of speed, convenience and frequency never before seen."

Knowles went on say that this announcement, "does not preclude a road in the future certainly, future governors and Legislatures if they face more favorable financial circumstances could opt for the road alternative. Yet even if we were to begin this year it will take an estimated 8 to 10 years to complete a road."

He also stated, "In the meantime Southeast Alaska residents would be stuck with inconvenient ferry service." He could not have known at the time how prophetic this observation was.

The ballot question in October of 2000 was worded in a way that strategically pitted the road against the entire ferry system. The Knowles/Ulmer administration attempted to sway the vote, offering the not-so-veiled warning that a majority vote for the road could result in reduced ferry service in Southeast. By the narrow margin of 82 votes, the road option was defeated. Most of the Juneau voters who voted against the road expected that Knowles would deliver on his earlier promise to provide "more convenient, predictable and affordable" ferry service.

In December of 2000 the Knowles/Ulmer administration, failing to come up with a practical ferry solution, hired the McDowell Group to determine three things. 1) Assess user needs for the Lynn Canal and Northern Panhandle; 2) Find the best balance of cost and service 3) Recommend actionable projects that can be completed in the next 3 to 10 years. So much for the argument that a road is a bad idea because it could take as long 10 years to build.

Now, according to the McDowell study completed this fall, with plans for the road in mothballs, we are also looking at a reduction of service. The McDowell team did as they were directed. The conclusions of the study acknowledge, "The study team did not adopt a broad increase in service or capacity as a goal."

The statistical analysis in the study takes the peak month of July and assumes that if the recommended service which includes four mainliners per week and two daily fast ferry runs were in place next July, there would be a reduction of 1,826 vehicle spaces on the route between Juneau and Haines/Skagway when compared to the existing schedule of five mainliners per week plus the Malaspina day boat.

One of the most revealing points made in the study deals with "pent up demand." The study team estimates that ferry utilization would increase by approximately 12 to 15 percent, if ideal ferry service were available. However, for most of the analysis the study team used an annual growth rate of only 1.5 percent, which is way too conservative.

Actual traffic counts on the highways at either end of the Lynn Canal corridor show the following increases per year from 1988-98:

Haines Highway - 2.3 percent

Klondike Highway - 2.7 percent

Glacier Highway - 2.9 percent

Alaska Highway (WhitehorseHaines Jct.) - 2.2 percent.

Nowhere in the study is the projected user cost for the recommended Lynn Canal ferry service revealed. Ferry service is the lifeline for Southeast Alaska. Only a road will adequately serve the pent up and future demand for access to the state's capital. A road along the Lynn Canal fortifies Juneau's hold on the capital. A road can ease the financial pressure on the ferry system and, therefore, help to save it. We must have adequate funding from the state to keep the AMHS afloat under a more efficient operating plan. Our economic future depends as much on the ferry system as it does the road. We urge the governor and lieutenant governor to end the gridlock on Lynn Canal and allow funding to complete the Draft Environmental Impact Study before it's too late.

Don Smith


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