My turn: Marine highway system is sinking in a sea of red ink

State can no longer afford to operate ferry system in SE

Posted: Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Whether or not you support the road, by now it should be painfully obvious that the Alaska Marine Highway System is sinking in red ink. If major changes are not made soon, Southeast residents will have few viable ways to travel within our region - and no affordable way.

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State statistics show that ridership on the marine highway system has dropped from 420,438 in 1992 (a peak year) to only 297,965 in 2003. That's a 41 percent decrease in ridership. But user fares have risen by 40 percent from 1999 to 2006, and the cost of operating the system has gone up by more than 30 percent just from fiscal year 2006 to 2007 ($103 million to $136 million). There is an undeniable connection between the skyrocketing cost of travel and the drop in ridership.

There are 11 vessels in the fleet, seven of which were built prior to 1980. The Matanuska, Malaspina, Taku and Tustumena were built in 1963, the Columbia and LeConte in 1974, and the Aurora in 1977. These vessels represent 64 percent of the total fleet operating today. They also represent 71 percent of the total passenger capacity and 74 percent of the total vehicle capacity for the entire fleet. These vessels are at or are close to being decommissioned. For the state to replace all of them would cost conservatively about $750 million.

The state recently decided not to purchase two additional fast ferries and the Fairweather and Chenega will only operate during the summer months due to poor winter performance and lack of ridership. No new ferries are currently planned to replace the existing vessels when they are decommissioned.

Years ago, we all enjoyed relaxing, idyllic cruises up and down Lynn Canal or over to Sitka at relatively low cost. Now, because traveler costs have practically doubled and the state subsidy is even more than what the user pays, those halcyon days are over, whether or not we want to accept it. In reality, if you want to take a cruise, you can purchase a cheaper, nicer one from a cruise line.

The Department of Transportation is responsible for providing the most cost effective and efficient way to move traffic (people, mail, freight) throughout Southeast Alaska. Can anyone believe that the rest of the state is willing to continue to subsidize the marine highway system just because Southeast Alaska has its head stuck in the past?

Of the $136 million it will cost to operate the system in fiscal year 2007, only about $51 million will come from passenger revenues. The remaining $85 million will come directly out of the state general fund. That is equivalent to approximately $130 for every man, woman and child in Alaska. These funds could be going for education, health and social services and community revenue sharing. Or, those funds could be directed to other transportation projects that are becoming more important to the residents of the ever growing rail-belt.

Southeast Alaska has about 10 percent of Alaska's population. Our population base is now smaller than the Mat-Su Borough, and after the 2010 re-districting, our Legislative delegation will be even smaller. The fact is the state can no longer afford to operate the marine highway system in Southeast Alaska with its shrinking population base. Our only option is to find a more cost effective way to move traffic or be prepared for less and less ferry service over the next couple of decades.

The Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, completed by DOT in 2004, recommends a road-shuttle ferry plan that would reduce cost to the traveling public and the state. Travel would be more convenient and reliable and there could be year-round daily service when the demand is there. This plan is already halfway in place, and with the construction of Juneau access and the institution of a fast-shuttle ferry service between Petersburg and Juneau, 85 percent of Southeast Alaska's population from Metlakatla to Skagway would be connected without the use of mainline ferries. This is a sensible, realistic plan that would allow the mainline ferries to be re-used elsewhere on the marine highway system.

• Wallace K. Williams is a Douglas resident who served as regional director for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Southeast Region.

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