Empire editorial: Pulling a fast one

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2006

To no one's surprise, the Murkowski administration last week declared the state's fast ferries a failure and said it would effectively scuttle the program.

Regional leaders are right to question whether the administration set up an experiment that couldn't help but fail, as they did in response to the announcement.

Not only will the state call off optional purchases of more fast ferries, but the administration says it likely will tie up the two existing boats next winter. Everyone expected this from a governor bent on demonstrating that new roads are the only way forward for Southeast Alaska. And it comes after a bizarre winter test that no one wanted, designed by a man who has always been Alaska's most vocal critic of fast ferries, if not the Alaska Marine Highway in general.

Robin Taylor, the former Wrangell lawmaker who now supervises the ferry system, redirected the Fairweather and Chenega from the routes to which they had been dedicated - in Lynn Canal and Prince William Sound - to see if anyone would ride them from Juneau to Ketchikan via Petersburg in winter. The experiment also was to gauge whether the ferries could hold up to the winter elements on that route, and apparently they came up short.

But the question remains: Who thought anyone would want to take a fast ferry between Ketchikan and Juneau in winter? Riding on a fast ferry, unlike the slower ships on which Alaskans are used to covering long distances, is a lot like riding in a spacious movie theater. There's not much variety, and the only deck space on which passengers can get some air is in the rear, with obstructed views and engine noise. The travel time between Juneau and Ketchikan on fast ferries is 10 hours. These ferries are at their best when turning eight-hour trips into four-hour trips, not on long hauls. Better to take one's time on a slow boat, or to fly.

That doesn't mean the fast ferries don't have their place, such as, say, where they were operating before the administration snatched them from the jaws of success. Lynn Canal, Juneau and Sitka clearly had a good thing going with the Fairweather, and the administration never even let the Chenega try to fulfill its intended purpose in Prince William Sound. It's not hard to imagine how Ketchikan might have used a third such ferry to link to its outlying communities or Wrangell.

But now a program that deserved a legitimate tryout appears prematurely dead in the water, at least until there is a change at the helm.

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