My turn: Anti-roaders need to define improved ferry service

Posted: Sunday, March 09, 2008

I see where Sen. Kim Elton has another Lynn Canal Highway rant going on his Web page. This one stems from the Senate Transportation Committee meeting produced and orchestrated by Southeast Alaska Conservation Council last week with the anti's calling for "improving ferry service" instead of building a road. The highway project started in 1993. With the constant, 15-year threat of a destructive road going through an ancient forest and destroying Haines and Skagway forever, a logical question has to be: Why hasn't ferry service been improved over that time?

The answer to the question is simple: It is not possible to "improve" the Alaska Marine Highway System service. Fares cannot be lowered unless the state subsidy increases, state costs cannot be reduced unless travelers pay more, and service cannot be increased without a corresponding decrease somewhere else in the system.

The only way possible to noticeably improve ferry service is by extending roads to shorten ferry routes. Shorter and more frequent ferry service with day boats and smaller crews will increase capacity and reduce user and state costs. Nothing can be done with the ships to accomplish as dramatic an improvement. When it is going to take a $2 billion capital investment just to replace vessels to maintain service we have now, and it costs $150 million a year to operate a transportation mode that carries half of 1 percent of all vehicular traffic in the state, it is hard to understand why our legislative delegation isn't screaming for road access.

Juneau is the largest city on the mainland of North America not connected to the continental highway system, the only city in the nation that continually faces losing its status as a capital and the only city in the world with a legislative delegation and half an assembly that does not see a need to improve transportation to the city they represent. I don't know how the majority of our elected officials rationalize their "no road" position, but I do see need for a serious reality check.

Instead of joining SEACC at press conferences to announce yet another lawsuit or bashing state employees who deliver the outrageous message that roads are more economical and efficient than ferries, why don't they explain to us their definition of "improved ferry service" for Lynn Canal? This should not be a difficult task. SEACC has two highly qualified transportation experts, one biked in from Connecticut and the other one kayaked in from Cook Inlet, and Elton should have free time not having to track flight times of the governor's jet.

I challenge them to develop and deliver to the public their specific plan for "improved ferry service" for Lynn Canal. The plan needs to demonstrate a viable schedule, time en route, fares, and state costs. When they're done, let's compare notes. This will really be interesting.

Our marine highway system does an outstanding job managing our ferry system but it clearly is not possible to appreciably improve service anywhere given the fiscal and physical realities.

Southeast, as a whole, needs to push for extended roads and shorter ferry links wherever possible, which in turn will improve service to communities that will never have the benefit of road access. That is the key to sound transportation decisions in the region we live.

The first project out of the box needs to be the Lynn Canal Highway because it is ready and offers the most dramatic improvement for our ferry system. Eliminating the operating cost of ferries in Lynn Canal will alone pay for this scenic, safe, reliable and cost effective road.

• Pat Kemp is a Juneau resident.

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