State ferry system should replace Prince Rupert port with Hyder

My turn

Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Ketchikan Daily News' editorial "State should take a closer look at future of its ferry systems" (June 5, Juneau Empire) hits the nail on the head and hopefully was read by Gov. Sarah Palin, the Alaska Legislature and the top management of the Alaska Department of Transportation.

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For years the Hyder Board of Trade has sought the designation of Hyder as the primary Alaska Marine Highway System road link with the North American highway system, replacing Prince Rupert with Hyder. This prudent decision by marine highway management would greatly increase needed ridership and eliminate the high cost of operating in Canada, while bringing the shore support jobs to rural Alaskans.

Unfortunately, our efforts fall on deaf ears within the Department of Transportation and the marine highway system as several mid-level bureaucrats advising political appointees on how to do business, move the subject to the back burner, fully aware of the system's continued hemorrhaging.

Today, we have very high hopes for the Palin administration and the new marine highway system deputy commissioner for a full hearing of the issue.

Typical marine highway bureaucratic comments center around the 162-mile distance between Hyder and Ketchikan as being too far to travel, while forgetting the distance between Petersburg and Sitka is 180 miles, Sitka and Juneau is 152 miles, Homer and Kodiak 157 miles, and Bellingham to Ketchikan is 685 miles.

In real life, it is not sinful to tell one's neighbor, "We are going to move" and give truthful reasons for the move. In the case of Prince Rupert, that community has enjoyed the benefits of a marine highway presence for years, including its blockade of the marine highway that sent DOT scrambling to Hyder and Stewart, British Columbia, as backup.

The time for a marine highway move to Hyder-Stewart is now! The simple justification for the move is:

1. Prince Rupert sits on only one of three competing north-south travel corridors for Alaska bound traffic. Today travelers are rapidly moving to the Cassiar (the Hyder link) or the Alaska Highway corridor with a total disregard for Prince Rupert and Southeast Alaska.

2. Canadian and U.S. customs clearing costs in Prince Rupert are a totally unneeded drain on the state of Alaska and the marine highway budget. This customs function is best accomplished on the U.S.-Canadian border at Hyder-Stewart with no involvement of the marine highway.

3. Turnaround times in Prince Rupert are giving the marine highway up to four hours of expensive labor and vessel costs per run due to customs issues. A one hour turnaround with no customs issue could be expected in Hyder.

4. Increased traffic develops via Hyder from the world-class bear viewing, which is attracting in excess of 50,000 visitors annually to the community. In addition, the massive Salmon Glacier and cruising of the Portland Canal-Misty Fjords boundary aboard a marine highway vessel is a once in a lifetime experience, if properly marketed.

5. The marine highway falls short of having a full fleet of Safety of Life at Sea certified vessels capable of Prince Rupert port calls. However, all marine highway vessels are capable of port calls in Hyder. Plus, only Alaska's Hyder is exempt of the famous Jones Act, should the marine highway acquire a less expensive, more efficient foreign bottom vessel for a Hyder-Misty Fjords Gateway service.

We strongly urge Palin to instruct her appointments to focus on the benefits of our proposal as a first step in bringing stability to the marine highway and reversing the loss of ridership.

• Gary Benedict is president of the Hyder Board of Trade in Hyder.

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