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Ferry system responds to schedule critics

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2008

A summer ferry schedule will likely be available by the end of January, according to Alaska Marine Highway System officials, who say they're working hard to beat their earlier announced date of Feb. 13.

Schedules are usually done much earlier, sometimes months earlier, and the delay continues to frustrate Southeast elected officials, who fear bookings are being lost and business will be hurt by the inability to schedule trips.

"We are working very rapidly on the schedule now," said Capt. John Falvey, director of the ferry system.

That's not good enough for Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

He told the Wednesday Native Issues Forum at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall that he was dismayed at the recent management of the ferry system, including failing to produce timely schedules.

"I really, really, really miss Robin Taylor," he said.

Elton has been an outspoken critic of controversial Taylor, former deputy commissioner of the ferry system. Elton said Taylor was mismanaging the system and harming the region.

State Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, agreed there were problems.

"I'm very frustrated with the way things have been handled in the last few years," she said.

After two days of public hearings on the summer schedule last week, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities issued a press release with what it said was a "sample" of comments from the teleconferenced hearings.

Both comments were from people praising the ferry system for expanding service in Lynn Canal between Juneau and Haines and Skagway.

Roger Wetherell, communications officer for the transportation department, said the department was not trying to present a more positive view of the hearing than actually, but they simply happened to pick two positive comments because they came early in the teleconferenced meeting.

"We did it as a service," Wetherell said.

He maintained the comments were representative of the meeting. Ferry managers asked for comments from communities in Southeast from north to south, and it just happened that the expanded service in Lynn Canal got favorable comments, Wetherell said.

Wilson said the majority of the comments were from people unhappy with the new schedule, especially with the reduction in service from Bellingham, Wash., to Alaska and in the southern Southeast communities she represents.

"The first few people were really positive. Then it kind of deteriorated after that," she said.

Falvey said the improved Lynn Canal service is important to the state, and the fast ferry Fairweather can't carry enough vehicles to meet the demand there.

The only way to meet the Lynn Canal demand is to replace the smaller Fairweather with the mainline ferry Malaspina, taken from the Bellingham run, where it augmented service from the Columbia.

"A high-capacity ferry running every day out of Juneau will solve that problem. The fast ferry is not capable of solving that problem," Falvey said.

He said he expected some traffic out of Bellingham to switch to Prince Rupert without difficulty.

Falvey said the Marine Transportation Advisory Board has not been asked for its views on the proposed schedule, but members of the group may have testified at the teleconferenced hearing.

Falvey said the board's next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 7, but he hopes to have the schedule finalized before then.

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