Ferry chief: System needs to change

Posted: Friday, March 03, 2006

The state's ferry system chief says both roads and ferries are going to be needed to make the system less of a drain on the treasury and still transport residents through Southeast Alaska's archipelago of disconnected communities.

"Any idiot who looks at a map knows you can't build bridges to every single island in Southeast," said Robin Taylor, a former state senator and now head of the Alaska Marine Highway System. "These are huge distances ... so we need roads and ferries both."

Taylor says the ferry system is now stuck in its most expensive phase: maintaining its aging existing fleet while acquiring new vessels. That, plus the high cost of fuel and operating the state's two fast ferries has resulted in the $82 million spending request to the state Legislature, Taylor said.

Almost $15 million of that is to supplement its current budget, while there is another $19 million in new spending requests for next year.

The hefty price tag has lawmakers trying to sort out exactly where the Alaska Marine Highway System's money is going.

"I'll just be straight up. I don't know whether we should give you $1 or $100 million," Senate Finance Co-Chairman Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, told Taylor at a Thursday hearing.

Besides the high fuel costs and the upkeep of the older vessels, there are the fast ferries, Chenega and Fairweather, which cost a combined $70 million to build. They have proven to be ineffective in running winter routes through Alaska's waters and will be tied up next winter, Taylor said.

Taylor said the state is moving toward day shuttles for more routes, which could eventually decrease the cost of operating the system.

The Lituya, which shuttles people between Ketchikan and Metlakatla, returns $9 for every $10 it costs to operate, he said. That's still a loss, but less of one than any other ferry operating in Alaska's waters.

"No other vessel comes close to that," he said.

Taylor likes that model, and wants to see some routes replaced with them. For example, building a 1.2-mile road at the end of Wrangell Island would allow a day shuttle between Wrangell and Ketchikan to operate.

Taylor also supports the much longer, and much more expensive, Juneau access road.

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