Ferry system sails into troubled waters

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2001

This summer is a season of discontent for many Southeast Alaska travelers, as the annual marine transportation bottleneck seems to have worsened. The traffic way most seriously impacted is the Lynn Canal route. Superficially, the problem of growing demand is exacerbated by the limited capacity of the Alaska Marine Highway System to deliver passengers and cargo. Over the past eight years the volume of passengers moved by AMHS has not expanded.

With the Columbia likely out of commission for the remainder of the summer, Southeast Alaskans and visitors to the area will continue to see their options cut or eliminated.

Stories about bad ferry experiences this summer are abundant. One popular regional event, the White Horse Dust Bowl softball tourney, will not see a number of Juneau teams because they can't get there from here.

A local car dealer cannot get his inventory to Juneau until September, adding greatly to his cost of doing business. A group of motorcycle enthusiasts from the Yukon was stranded last week in Haines for a day waiting for passage to Juneau. The litany of discontent is long.

The Lynn Canal route between Juneau and Haines is most under-served transportation artery in the state during the summer season.

The current woes with the ferry system are just the tip of the iceberg. When the Alaska Marine Highway System was launched back in the '60s, it was a model of efficiency. The fleet was smaller and the state had ample funds to operate its new vessels to adequately serve the needs of a less populated Southeast Alaska.

The vigorous growth of tourism in Southeast Alaska has contributed to passenger demand, now being served by a fleet of vessels that includes a few approaching the end of their service lives.

Early in his term as governor, Tony Knowles pledged to improve access to Juneau. After the governor changed his stripes on the Juneau to Skagway road, he deemed the salvation for Southeast's transportation needs to be fast ferries designed to carry people and cars.

The ensuing Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan has been riddled with problems and concerns from the beginning. The DOT did a good job of gathering information from the public and did a good job of selling the fast ferry concept, but has done a poor job of addressing economic concerns.

We need only to look to our neighbors in British Columbia for an expensive lesson on the fast ferry business. The government of B.C. couldn't back away from its program fast enough. B.C. absorbed astronomical losses by failing to fully assess the true costs of operating the system. Their $200 million fast ferries are now worth a fraction of what it cost to build them.

Fast ferries consume more than three times as much fuel as our existing ferries. The whole fast ferry plan is suspect. The bidding process, fare projections, cost of operation, projected usage, the rollout plan and ultimately the long-term funding prospects for the Southeast Plan are all murky.

The costs of building the five ferries to the custom specifications issued by the state will be hard to nail down, assuming a contractor can be found. Ferry builders aren't exactly clamoring to do business with Alaska in the wake of the $50 million cost overrun claim against the contractor for the Kennicott.

Fast ferries have been around for some time and serve as viable public transportation under the right circumstances. Before we sink too deep into an expensive long-term commitment, maybe it would be prudent to build the Sitka fast ferry and operate it for a while to see how it performs. If the Sitka shuttle proves to be sustainable, then the other fast ferries could be phased in.

More logically, as the Southeast Conference points out in its review of the plan, no commitment should be made until the Lynn Canal Study is concluded. DOT has spent $5 million of the people's money on the draft EIS and has left it blowing in the wind while it diverts its focus to transportation proposals in other areas such as Prince William Sound.

Add to these issues the costs and planning for terminal alterations to accommodate the new boats, and do away with the old. And what about the cost for retrofitting to accommodate new waste water treatment standards? Surely the governor and the DOT will want to demonstrate some leadership here.

Everyone's focus should be on Southeast's long-range transportation needs. What will the demand be in 20 years? Will Southeast be left behind the rest of the state in terms of economic growth and representation?

The ferry system alone cannot serve the future needs of Southeast Alaska. The ferry system has served the region for nearly 40 years and will be depended upon for a long time to come. But supplemental hard surface roadways used to shorten point-to-point ferry connections should be more seriously considered by the DOT as an important component of a long-term solution. Shorter, faster ferry runs will add up to significant cost savings. Consideration of a road to the state capital also offers the prospect of mitigating the AMHS subsidy.

Alaska will be dealing with bigger problems in regard to meeting its overall fiscal needs in the coming years until new revenue sources can be determined. With the AMHS Fund dwindling to next-to-nothing from $40 million, the DOT will be holding its hand out for more subsidy money for the AMHS.

With rising fuel, maintenance and operating costs, these appropriations are going to be hard to come by. In all likelihood, the AMHS budget will shrink. If the capital moves, we may find ourselves swimming to Haines.

If we bet the farm that ferries alone are the answer to our future transportation needs and we are wrong, Southeast Alaska could be facing an economic stranglehold long after Tony Knowles leaves office.

Don Smith


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