The configuration of the Alaska Marine Highway System is in flux. Since the early days of statehood, the AMHS has been a vital component in serving the transportation needs of the Southeast, Southwest and Prince William regions of our state. Since the ferry system was established, altered transportation needs, increased operational costs, changing demographics and an aging fleet of ferries ensure that change is inevitable.
Without question, the M/V Bartlett will be removed from service in the next year. The M/V Aurora may be redeployed to Prince William Sound as a replacement. Given the substantial costs of complying with upgraded safety standards in 2010, the M/V Malaspina and M/V Matanuska likely will be retired. While the M/V Taku, M/V Kennicott and M/V Columbia will probably continue to sail (at least seasonally during the summer) for decades, the days of comprehensive large-capacity "mainline" ferry service are obviously numbered. The costs associated with providing mainline ferry service to every port are creating budgetary havoc in these times of declining governmental revenue.
Providing adequate coastal transportation is difficult but not impossible in these tough budgetary times. Two new fast ferry vessels are under construction and will be deployed in the near future. The first fast vessel is slated for use in Southeast Alaska; a sister ship will sail in Prince William Sound. A new shuttle ferry designed to connect Metlakatla with the existing road system in the southern end of Southeast Alaska will improve access and increase maritime commerce.
Design, deployment and operation of new ferry vessels that operate in a cost effective manner will do much to guarantee the economic success of coastal Alaska communities. But to be truly successful, the new vessels must work together in an integrated manner with other vessels yet to be built. For example, deployment of a single new fast ferry in Southeast Alaska is unlikely to produce the traffic volume and efficiencies obtained by a fully functioning fleet of vessels.
The new administration has recently taken a hard look at deploying the new high-speed ferry M/V Fairweather on the Sitka to Juneau route. While it may make economic sense to "home port" the new ferry in Juneau and operate the vessel along the Lynn Canal corridor, the needs of Sitka and many villages must be addressed.
The basic problem with adequately serving Sitka via maritime commerce has much to do with geography. The great majority of the ferry routes in Southeast Alaska run on a north-south axis. Taking a ferry to Sitka is essentially an east-west journey complicated by narrow passages and substantial tides.
In any event, Sitka deserves regular and predictable ferry service. Even more importantly, the many outlying villages and communities that routinely send residents to the Mount Edgecumbe Hospital for health care needs and other commercial activities need access to Sitka.
If Sitka is going to thrive and grow, the state of Alaska needs to commence at once on the design and deployment of a new ferry that will link Sitka with the communities of central Southeast Alaska. Sitka has quietly become the health care hub in Southeast Alaska for many residents of Kake, Angoon, Tenakee, Hoonah and Juneau. A properly designed and intelligently deployed vessel linking the villages and smaller communities with Sitka would alleviate much concern about the financial prospects of Alaska's fifth largest community. The vessel need not be identical to the new fast ferries or contain significant amenities. What's needed is a ferry that can provide regular, predictable cost-effective transportation for the smaller communities in the rugged fjord region that makes road building and aviation difficult.
Joe Geldhof is counsel for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association in Alaska; a union representing licensed marine engineers and other workers in Alaska.