The communities of Haines and Skagway are mounting a campaign to bring a private fast ferry system to Lynn Canal, a move the towns' officials say is in response to inadequate service.
Officials in the two communities said they are frustrated with unfulfilled promises by the state to provide Lynn Canal communities with fast ferry service to Juneau.
"We're fed up with the Department of Transportation," said Jan Wrentmore, a business owner in Skagway who serves on the Skagway Lynn Canal Transportation Committee.
Wrentmore said the state promised to bring a fast ferry to the region about three years ago, but decided to place the ferry in Sitka instead.
The first of four fast ferries scheduled to join the state's marine highway system is set to begin running between Sitka and Juneau in May 2004.
DOT, however, told Sitkans last week that the agency is considering putting the fast ferry Fairweather in Lynn Canal. Officials gave Sitka residents until October to present arguments for running the ship between Juneau and Sitka.
Haines and Skagway support putting the ferry in Lynn Canal but are continuing to pursue their own private ferry authority, similar to the Inter-island Ferry Authority that runs the ship Prince of Wales between Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island. The IFA also plans to run a second ferry, the Stikine, to provide service from Coffman Cove to Wrangell and Petersburg.
In the past three months, the two communities have hired the Juneau consulting firm The McDowell Group to study the ridership and revenue potential for a private ferry authority in Lynn Canal. Wrentmore said the study is based on ridership and revenue on state vessels in 2001.
Wrentmore, along with Bart Henderson of the Haines Marine Transportation Committee, agrees that the preliminary draft of the report suggests the ridership in Lynn Canal would support a private ferry authority.
"The demand is there, and the market is there," Wrentmore said. "It's the one place in Southeast Alaska where a ferry authority could probably break even or make money."
She said the report notes traffic between Lynn Canal ports and all other system ports generates 38 percent of all passenger revenue, 39 percent of all car deck revenue, 46 percent of all cabin revenue and 40 percent of all system-wide revenue.
Henderson said officials and citizens from the two communities met with representatives of the Inter-island Ferry Authority on June 25 in Haines to discuss the feasibility of a private ferry system in Lynn Canal.
He said IFA Development Coordinator Kent Miller and other IFA representatives attended the meeting and are working with the two communities to develop a plan for establishing a private ferry system in Lynn Canal.
But no direction has been set on the number and size of vessels that would make up the ferry authority.
Henderson said there is talk about working with the Alaska Marine Highway System, operating state vessels that service the Lynn Canal communities. But Wrentmore said she would prefer establishing two fast ferries to provide daily service in the region one that would travel from upper Lynn Canal to Juneau in the morning and another that would move in the opposite direction.
"That would give optimum service to Juneau, Skagway and Haines," she said.
DOT Deputy Commissioner Tom Briggs said he was unaware that the two communities were discussing the new ferry authority.
"I wish them luck I really do," Briggs said.
He said he believes port authorities work but added that he is uncertain whether one would succeed in Lynn Canal.
As far as establishing two private fast ferries in the region, Briggs said: "That's a very challenging proposal, and one that would take them years to effect."
He said funding for a private ferry authority would have to come from the federal government.
Juneau Mayor Sally Smith said discussion of a private ferry authority in Lynn Canal is relatively new, and she did not have a sense of whether Juneau would support it.
She added that if the Juneau Access Project, which could result in construction of a road connecting Juneau and Skagway, moves forward it could reduce ferry ridership in Lynn Canal.
She said the three communities also must come to a consensus on the issue to determine what's best for the entire region.
"I don't want to come up with what's best for Juneau without talking with all three of the communities, because what's good for them is good for us," Smith said.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.
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