Ferry system keeps schedules a mystery

Posted: Monday, June 13, 2005

If you are in the business of printing revised schedules for the Alaska Marine Highway System, you're in a growth industry. If, on the other hand, you want to travel by ferry, it would be good to have a backup plan.

Ferry schedule changes are nothing new, but they are usually the product of unforeseen events, like mechanical breakdowns. The announced redeployment of the fast ferries Fairweather and Chenega on the other hand, is a deliberate choice by the leadership of the AMHS. It took most of us by surprise, apparently including the Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

State officials have known for over three years that the Chenega would arrive in Alaska this spring. (In fact, it would have arrived sooner had the state not requested a delay.) Yet negotiations for a labor agreement to operate the ferry began only last week. The official position is that it may not begin operating out of Cordova, its intended home port, before July 1. With the crew workup time required, the outlook for a July 1 start is not promising.

For months, ferry officials have been touting the Chenega to the communities of Prince William Sound. Municipal officials and business owners have been solicited by AMHS to celebrate the inauguration of year-round high-speed service between Whittier, Valdez and Cordova. The local folk have been uniformly enthusiastic, recognizing the attractiveness of shorter voyages and predictable service, especially for their demanding summer clientele. They find it incredible that all those preparation have been sacrificed to conduct an "experiment" in Southeast.

The Fairweather earned more than $250,000 above its operating cost serving Skagway, Haines, and Juneau from June to September of 2004. Off-season, the Fairweather would operate less frequently and incur less cost. But if it goes south, we will not be able to establish its annual Lynn Canal earning power, nor will travelers acquire the confidence that should have come from a consistent marriage of ferry and route. The redeployment of the Fairweather means abandoning an opportunity to improve, in real time, Juneau's connection to the rest of the state and show the potential for a revenue-positive link. All this, to experiment with an awkward "double shuffle" route through Petersburg and mainliners turning around in Juneau, all of which is sure to exasperate passengers. What next Summer's service will look like is anyone's guess.

It has also been suggested that AMHS needs to find out how the fast ferries will handle the wind and seas on a Ketchikan-Juneau route. But the state has already spent a great deal of money and time to get those answers. The fast ferries have been designed to operate in the worst winter weather conditions we commonly find in Southeast Alaska. But they are not intended to handle literally any kind of weather, any more than the mainline fleet is. The fast ferries were designed to complete 98 percent of their scheduled runs annually, and 95 percent of their winter schedule. There is no reason to believe they can't meet or better those goals.

It may be that this shuffle in the system's ferries is the first step in implementing the "zone" system of ferry operations. That concept is based on conventional-speed "dayboats" or "shuttles." There is nothing new there. But implicit in the zone system is the gradual elimination of service to non-Alaskan ports, and conversion to an all-dayboat fleet. That means no more service to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, or Bellingham, Wash. This in turn would eliminate hundreds of shipboard jobs, most of them located in Juneau and Ketchikan. It would also place a premium on road access throughout Southeast Alaska.

It has long been the custom to prepare in writing and offer for public comment any plan for making major changes in our ferry or other transportation systems. Such a process spurs critical examination of the proposals and, however time-consuming, invariably results in a better product. At least as important is providing the public with the motives behind any proposals. That's missing here, and the public's negative reaction is not surprising. They don't want to find out about transportation changes when they pick up one of the new schedules.

• Bob Doll is a former general manger of the Alaska Marine Highway System and is executive director of Better Ferries for Alaska, a ferry-support coalition.

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