City worries about fast ferry access

Assembly, labor negotiators discuss Fairweather

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2005

Juneau Deputy Mayor Marc Wheeler had to cancel his plans to play in a hockey tournament at Haines Junction in January, because the state pulled the fast ferry Fairweather out of service in a labor dispute Jan. 23.

On Wednesday, Wheeler invited labor negotiators to address the Juneau Assembly about the city's continuing access problem, and a union representative urged the city to write to the governor.

It is unknown whether the fast ferry will resume operation in March. The state has to reach agreement with two of the three unions representing the vessel's crew.

"The fast ferry is a great ship. I want to see it continue to operate," Wheeler said. "The fast ferry provides good service to Lynn Canal and is used by residents of Juneau, Haines and Skagway. It helps people get to the capital for their business."

John Torgerson, special assistant to Transportation Commissioner Mike Barton, couldn't make it to Wednesday's meeting. Ben Goldrich, union representative for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, asked the Assembly to press the governor to put the ferry back into service.

"The state has chosen to pull out the fast ferry to get concessions of the unions," Goldrich said. "They are holding the consumers hostage. The Fairweather shouldn't be used as a pawn in labor negotiations."

The sticking point of the impasse is that the state wants one crew to operate the Fairweather for four days a week in winter. In summer, two crews work seven days a week, 12 hours a day to serve the high volume of travelers. That means members of one crew would lose their jobs or have to find jobs on other vessels within the Alaska Marine Highway System in winter.

"The state's position is that it is not fiscally responsible to give extra service throughout the winter when the number of passengers doesn't warrant it," said John Manly, spokesman of Department of Transportation.

Manly said the Fairweather served 11,000 passengers and received $455,000 from passenger fees in July. But in October, the number of passengers dropped to 1,360 and the revenues from passenger fares plummeted to $33,000.

But Goldrich said the state promised crew members year-around employment when they were offered the job.

"The first time the state told us that they wanted to reduce Fairweather's service in the winter was on Nov. 15, 2004," Goldrich said. "If the state wants to keep a steady crew for Fairweather, they need to work with the unions to give them the flexibility that would allow both crews to stay employed year-around."

After hearing Goldrich's testimony, Assembly member Randy Wanamaker said the Assembly should hear from both the unions and the state before making any decisions.

"We shouldn't make a decision without sufficient information," Wanamaker said.

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.



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