In the tucked-away community of Hyder where the deep waters of the Portland Canal join the paved Cassiar Highway 37A leading to the rest of America, we commend the bold initiative of Robin Taylor to experiment with Alaska's two fast ferries this winter. We also expect Deputy Commissioner Taylor to gain valuable insight on new approaches and concepts to slow the serious hemorrhage of state funds to maintain Alaska Marine Highway System.
Beyond the Taylor experiment, another bold decision needs to be made and supported by Gov. Frank Murkowski. The issue is transfer of AMHS terminal operations from Prince Rupert, Canada, to the soils of Alaska, and designate Hyder as the official southern regional terminus of AMHS. Hyder provides a superior and shorter road link between Alaska and the rest of North America, and offers many distinct economic advantages such as transporting fresh Alaska salmon to the Chicago market within 48 hours by use of empty back-haul trucks passing Cassiar 37A.
Last month AMHS vessel turnaround time in Prince Rupert reached a six-hour-plus level to complete vessel unloading and reloading. This is not a fault of AMHS vessel crews, but a developing trend in "Canadian Customs clearing procedures." If state decision-makers add these six hours of "in-port processing time" to the round-trip running needs in the Ketchikan-Prince Rupert corridor, we are approaching 18 hours of costly and unneeded financial hemorrhage for AMHS.
For the Alaska recreational-vehicle visitors scheduled to board an AMHS vessel in Prince Rupert, this boarding experience is a story to be repeated over and over among Good Sam members, as they share with each other the best routes to Alaska. This is precisely where Southeast Alaska tourism gets hurt, and AMHS ridership declines.
During the past 11 years AMHS Prince Rupert traffic continues a rapid fall, while the increasing visitor-friendly and favorable conditions for RV travelers on the Cassiar Highway increase, with no inclusion of Prince Rupert and AMHS.
Additionally, the Cassiar route offers a unique visitor experience at the U.S. Forest Service's world-class bear-viewing facility in Hyder. This unequaled phenomenon is rapidly moving potential AMHS traffic away from Prince Rupert boarding and onto the Cassiar Highway to view wildlife at Hyder. For 2004, Forest Service records show in excess of 53,000 visitors for Hyder bear viewing. The 2005 numbers will be even higher and we predict Prince Rupert traffic will again continue to fall.
To reverse AMHS ridership losses, the first step is designation of Hyder as the southern AMHS terminus. Then focus marketing efforts around Hyder bears, wildlife, fjord- and glacier-viewing traffic. Results will show new AMHS passengers willing to enter Southeast Alaska via the Portland Canal corridor ferry, but not willing to make a 296-mile drive back to Prince Rupert in order to join an AMHS vessel.
A primary Southeast Transportation Plan element is the 12-hour day boat, single-crew operation. In the footsteps of the Knik and Kachemak Bay vessels, manufacture of a Ketchikan-built vessel using Lockheed-Martin technology can easily meet the Portland Canal Corridor round-trip requirements as the new "gateway shuttle" vessel. At the same time such a vessel supports new jobs in the emerging Ketchikan industry.
The Hyder Board of Trade stands committed to support Deputy Commissioner Taylor. We continue development of our multi-use marine facilities. Meanwhile, AMHS continues paying full cost of U.S. Customs in Prince Rupert, an expensive Canadian terminal lease, an expensive Canadian terminal agent contract, Canadian railway right-of-way payments, property taxes, and then payment for an AMHS cabin-cleaning services contract to Canadians while our vessels are moored in Prince Rupert. The list goes on and on. It is no wonder Robin Taylor has such a major challenge before him.
We urge Gov. Murkowski to make a bold announcement in his State-of-the-State Address to the Alaska Legislature next January, demonstrating a commitment to Alaska jobs, resource development, fish marketing and the financial stability of AMHS.
Gary Benedict is a Hyder businessman, president of the Hyder Board of Trade and former member of the Southeast Conference Board of Directors.