My Turn: How to keep the ferry system afloat

Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Alaska Marine Highway System's proposed 2008 summer schedule is in direct opposition to what the system's clientele wants and uses. These changes are not required or mandated - they are a choice.

It appears the driving force of the 2008 schedule is cost-cutting. In the 1980s, the state was in a financial crunch, and the marine highway system made some uncomfortable but practical vessel changes to reduce costs. Since then, there have been additional plans implemented aimed at reductions. At some point, the vessels ceased to have practical areas left to cut, but the focus has remained there.

There are two sides to the budget dilemma: cost and revenue. The summer schedule will allow for a reduction in ship-board staffing. This gives the impression of a cost-saving measure; however, the real cost is in service, which in turn reduces revenue. In the summer of 2006, the LeConte's schedule changed allowing the crew to be reduced from 24 to 16, but the number of passengers carried fell by about 600 per week.

The largest group of passengers I see negatively affected are those attempting to connect to Anchorage and Fairbanks. Historically, this has been two-thirds of the passenger load, and where politicians distrust the system the most.

With only one direct sailing per week from Prince Rupert to Haines or Skagway, and one from Bellingham to Haines/Skagway, all other passengers intending to sail through Southeast Alaska will have to transfer ships for their last 4.5-hour leg, arriving too late to make the border. Their alternative is to drive around, missing Southeast (more lost revenue). For those Alaskans and military personnel who have enjoyed avoiding driving through Canada, the schedule will limit their highway access to once a month.

Yes, Alaskans are concerned about the cost to run the ferry system, but I believe that concern is exacerbated by imprudent decisions.

Developing a solid long-term plan with good consistent service with revenue generating potential and requesting a three-year commitment will allow the ridership and revenue to build. And set the prices at a level that fills the ships up. In exchange, pledge to maintain a good consistent schedule, take care of critical maintenance issues with sound options, and eliminate nonessential upgrades.

I found an old 1987 schedule that is great for the Matanuska, Malaspina, Taku and Columbia. Each week this schedule provided two sailings from Bellingham to Skagway, four sailings from Prince Rupert to Skagway, two northbound Sitka Sailings and two southbound Sitka sailings and five daily sailings from Juneau to Haines and Skagway and between.

Add the Fairweather two times a week for Haines orSkagway to the two times a week to Sitka, and the north end gets daily service and Sitka gets six days per week. The remaining three days a week, the Fairweather may fill in where there might be larger loads or not run if fuel costs are an issue.

The Kennicott should be used similarly to 2005 with weekly cross-gulf sailings, leaving Prince Rupert on Friday. This would complement the other Rupert runs, allow Ketchikan folks a weekend trip to Juneau, and connect with the Tuesday Bellingham sailing.

The LeConte would serve northern villages and the Lituya, Metlakatla. The Matanuska, Malaspina and Taku can stop in Kake when they pass on the way to or from Sitka.

With this schedule, if one vessel breaks down, there are vessels within a day or two that can pick up the load. There are no zone system bottlenecks. The port times each day are close.

Their plan will save half of the Kennicott's fuel bill and one-third her crew costs, and 15 or so jobs off the Malaspina, but will lose weekly car-deck revenue from Bellingham, and semi-monthly cross-gulf revenue.

I believe building infrastructure that can bluster the revenue side of the dilemma while servicing the needs of Alaskans and visitors is a healthier direction, and will more likely receive statewide support.

• Mary Dahle, of Ketchikan, has taught and lived in Southeast Alaska, the Yukon Delta, Fairbanks and the Yukon Flats area, and South Central Alaska. She is a purser for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

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