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My Turn: Service gap an illusion

Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cabin fever - or "shack nastiness," as we called it in Wrangell - strikes Alaskans every spring. (Full disclosure: This writer lived in Wrangell 18 years, graduated from Wrangell High School in '42 and is a good friend of the people mentioned in this column, or was until they read it.)

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Some of that nastiness appeared in an editorial column of Alaska's largest newspaper recently, slamming Robin Taylor, who was in charge of the ferry system in the Murkowski administration. (Full disclosure: The editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News, Larry Persily, and his wife, ran the Wrangell Sentinel for seven years on the other side of the street from where Taylor had his office in Wrangell. And former Gov. Frank Murkowski is a former Wrangell bank manager who loaned this writer money to buy a press.)

At times, both Murkowski and former State Sen. Robin Taylor can be abrasive in their passion for their projects, so passionate they drive their critics to a nastiness that ignores facts.

For example, the Anchorage Daily News editorial writer said of the Murkowski-Taylor management of the ferry system: "State service was abysmally erratic, leaving far too many Alaskans wanting service."

Oh? For the big complainers at the ADN and in Juneau, many of whom are former Knowles administration jobholders: When the Murkowski administration took over, it cancelled Knowles' plan to sell the ferry Taku. (Earlier, efforts to sell the Malaspina had been cancelled.) The new governor's word to Taylor was to put all the ferries to work to provide more service. That happened.

In 2002, the year that Murkowski won election, there were only 696 ferry departures from Juneau. The next year, departures rose to 710. In 2004, departures rose again to 840 and in 2005 to 888. Ferry calls at Sitka, Alaska's once-capital, also increased from 298 a year to 337 during the Murkowski-Taylor years. Only Ketchikan was a big loser because the Inter-Island Ferry Authority took over Prince of Wales service.

However, the complainers didn't take advantage of the increased service.

The number of passengers embarking at Juneau dropped from a high of 79,567 in 1999 to 65,581 in 2005. The good news is that ferry system officials' preliminary figures indicate that there was a substantial increase in passenger traffic in 2006. That report is due soon. What brought the boost in 2006 were advertising promotions to encourage ferry travel, such as drivers riding free on a round trip and 30 percent off for round trips. All of it was the work of the Murkowski-Taylor management.

Much of the erratic service was caused by breakdowns. After all, seven of the 11 state ferries are 30 to 44 years old and the two newest ones, the high-speed cats, keep running into crippling debris that usually drifts in national forest waters.

The ADN editorial writer criticized the attempt to extend the road out of Juneau to make ferry rides shorter to Skagway and Haines, and complained about moving the ferry system headquarters to Ketchikan, close to the state-owned Ketchikan Shipyard, which the system frequently uses.

It's been 31 years since this writer worked as an assignment editor, but sometimes we see facts that just scream "story." Here are possible headlines: "Ferry traffic plunges 37 percent." Subhead: "Drop occurs despite more ships."

And those are facts. In 1992, passenger traffic on the Southeast system was 372,680. By 2005, it sank through three administrations to 233,667. At the same time, four new ferries were added to the fleet: the Fairweather, the Chenega, the Lituya and the Kennicott. What happened, how and why? Alaskans want to know. Sen. Gary Wilkins, R-Fairbanks, wants to know, the AP tells us. What are the solutions? Far be it for someone who probably contributed his share of shack nastiness throughout the years to tell the new kids how to do it, but this writer hopes his nastiness was based on facts and not frustration because his candidate lost.

•••

Our seasonal disease spread when fog disrupted air travel to the state capital in January, preventing 15 lawmakers from arriving in time for a weekly session. "Move the capital" shouts erupted.

Gov. Sarah Palin, flying in the state's turbo twin rather than the state's jet, spent the night in Ketchikan. We presume she didn't have to pay the $70 for transportation from the Ketchikan Airport to the city side of the channel. We presume the state troopers picked up her ferry fare as well as fares for the aircrew.

For those who wonder about the $70, that is the cost of a taxi ride from the airport, via the airport ferry, to town or from town to the airport, since the airport service shut down Jan. 1.

Borough administrators and elected officials froze to inaction in the winter weather. They haven't thought of a way to provide temporary airport service using the borough bus system. It is great in a way. Critics of a bridge to the Ketchikan airport will contribute $150 to the Ketchikan economy, paying for access to and from the airport. Isn't that neat?

Of course people can always walk. That is real fun in the wind and rain, or on a clear, cold, windy day. That privilege costs only $5 and the traveler benefits from catching more than cabin fever.



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