Alaska Marine Highway System management juggled schedules to increase ferry service to Southeast communities where traffic and population are dropping, while reducing service to areas where population and traffic are growing.
Ferry traffic is down out of Bellingham, Wash., from 18,000 boardings in 1997 to 15,000 in 2006, but the real loss is at Prince Rupert, from 20,000 boardings in '99 to 11,500 in '06. Now system managers are going to promote travel out of Prince Rupert while cutting service out of Bellingham, the travelers' choice.
At the same time, service is being cut to the Westward, although ferry boardings at Whittier, the Anchorage area's ferry terminal, climbed to 18,000 for '06 from 8,000-10,000 annually in the 10 years before.
Southeast towns appreciate the increased service but collapsing a business into a shrinking market is a questionable move. Here are facts that should concern AMHS managers and all Panhandle residents:
Southeast lost 3,754 people (potential ferry riders) between 2000 and 2007, state demographer Greg Williams reports.
In 2000, Ketchikan had a population of 14,000 where 54,000 people boarded the ferries. By 2005, Ketchikan's population was down to 13,000 and the ferry boardings down to 29,000. Similar drops in ferry boardings and populations occurred in Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Skagway and Haines.
Despite the addition of 670 mine jobs at the Green's Creek and Kensington mines, Juneau's population dropped from 30,700 in 2000 to 30,300 in 2007. Ferry boardings plunged from 80,000 in '99 to 65,000 in '06.
One reason the Westward ferry boardings increased is that in the years between 2000 and 2007, the Anchorage and Mat-Su population climbed from 319,000 to 364,000 and the Interior population grew from 97,500 to 102,000.
Southeast must do something to reverse the trend, such as overcome development critics within Southeast who appear dead-set on economic suicide.
After 20 years and spending $25 million, the Forest Service has a Tongass land management plan that allows the current small timber industry to survive. But already there are threats of lawsuits to delay or kill logging.
In Juneau, there is a battle for survival of the Kensington mine. Kensington opponents sued to ban dumping mine tailings in Slate Lake. Now they are on to other complaints to kill the project. (Across the border in British Columbia, Barrick Gold's Eskay Creek mine, 100 miles east of Wrangell, has been dumping tailings in a lake as the preferred disposal. The cold water keeps toxic material confined to the bottom of the lake. After operations, it will be capped, as was waste material in Ward Cove after Ketchikan's pulp mill closed.)
Some are concerned over the use of air cushion barges on the Taku River to serve the Tulsequah Mine. That highlights the shortsightedness of those who opposed building a road from Juneau up the Taku in 1954. The route was staked and Canadian cooperation was expected for a road from Tulsequah to Atlin, and on to the Alaska Highway, because of mine activity. The Polaris-Taku mine operated in the late '30s and the Tulsequah mine in the early '60s.
A route for a natural gas pipeline into Southeast, from the proposed Alaska natural gas pipeline from the North Slope, follows that road route and is in a report compiled 10 years ago by Dennis Nottingham of PND, a prominent Alaska engineering firm.
If that road was in place, it would be a 51-mile drive from Tulsequah to Juneau, a drive that many mine workers would enjoy for recreation, shopping and maybe a ferry ride.
All of Southeast, not just Juneau, should learn from past mistakes and boost the current planned routes out of Juneau and Southeast: extend a highway toward Skagway to shorten shuttle ferry runs to Haines and Skagway. Boost the proposed Bradfield Canal Highway out of Wrangell to the Canadian highway system, offsetting another mistake: squabbling over whether to dredge Dry Strait or bridge it killed the Stikine-Iskut Highway out of Wrangell-Petersburg in the early 1960s.
Another Petersburg-Wrangell squabble is developing over potential hydroelectric power at Thomas Bay near Petersburg. That power, with Snettisham, makes a Panhandle grid feasible. It could provide enough power for all Southeast communities plus some left over to sell outside the Panhandle, lowering the cost of power for Alaskans. The squabble is what to do first, extend power to Kake as part of a Panhandle grid or extend a line up the Bradfield to sell power.
The Southeast Conference, which inspired creation of the ferry system 50 years ago, needs help in settling the debate by promoting the Panhandle grid, and promoting a power line to Canada and the Lower 48.
AMHS managers, Southeast Conference members and everyone in Southeast must encourage the Palin administration and the Legislature to provide funds, probably through bond issues, to extend roads to shorten ferry runs, to build more efficient ferries, to construct the Panhandle power grid and extend lines and roads to promote and sell all of our resources.
Or, when figures are collected in 2012 after the three-year experiment on the revised ferry operations, the outlook will be gloomier. Because after the 2010 reapportionment, if the trend continues, Southeast will have a quieter political voice in Juneau (or maybe Anchorage), having lost one and one-half to two legislators.
Lew Williams is a retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and has been a journalist in Alaska since 1946. He was a founder and first secretary of the Southeast Conference. He can be reached at email@example.com.