Alaska editorial: State should take closer look at future of its ferry system

Posted: Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Legislature was generous with the Alaska Marine Highway system. There is money to cover operating costs not covered by ferry fares. There is more than $13 million for upgrades of ships and terminals. There is money for the new terminal for the Metlakatla-Ketchikan shuttle when the road on Annette Island from Metlakatla is finished. And there is money for vessel refurbishment.

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What is missing is money to thoroughly examine the ferry system with the goal of replacing all of the mainliners in the next decades.

That means examining the traffic trends and designing suitable economic ships for the runs. No need to put a 700- to 900-passenger ship on a run that never carries even one-half that load.

The state should have learned after it ran a 300-passenger ship, operated with a crew of 28, on a run to and from Prince of Wales Island. The Inter-Island Ferry Authority, created by communities lamenting the lack of frequent service to and from the island by the state, moved in 2002 to provide more frequent service at lower costs. IFA adequately serves the route with ships that have one-half the capacity and less than one-half the crew. The Lituya, operating between Ketchikan and Metlakatla, is another successful operation the state started with a modern ship designed for the route instead of wasting money on oversized ships.

Ferry traffic is changing. Volume in Southeast peaked at 374,000 passengers and 97,000 vehicles in 1992. It steadily fell to a low of 234,000 passengers and 68,000 vehicles in 2005. There was a slight increase in 2006 thanks to heavy advertising and specials that offered lower in-Alaska rates.

But trends are changing.

Prince Rupert has now fallen behind Bellingham in the number of passenger boardings. Juneau, with 65,000 boardings, far out-distances second-place Ketchikan, 37,000; Haines, 31,000; Prince Rupert, 12,000, and Bellingham, 15,000.

The mainliners are 40 years old. Knowledgeable mariners advise that the hull life of the ships is 60 years. It takes 10 years to finance and build a new ship so if the state doesn't start designing a replacement program better suited to the traffic trends, the system soon will be in trouble.

The study should be impartial and not one to justify a preconceived notion, such as that high-speed catamarans are the solution. They proved they are not because of the high cost of operation, lack of sufficient traffic, and an inability to operate in certain Southeast sea conditions.

Alaskans are encouraged by a new governor willing to look at new things, new methods, new procedures. She has appointed a new ferry advisory commission. Maybe in the next legislative session there will be new money to finance an impartial and accurate review of the system. Maybe it will even include a ferry system for the Yukon that Rep. Woodie Salmon is pushing.

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