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My Turn: Southeast residents need to take action to protect our ferry system

Posted: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ferry service on the Alaska Marine Highway System is more than just the best way to connect scattered Southeast communities.

In September 2005, the AMHS achieved the nation's highest designation for a scenic route. The Federal Highway Administration named the AMHS an All-American Road, one of only 27 highways in the United States. This prompted Aneta Synan, state byways coordinator for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, to declare, "We were able to demonstrate that riding the ferry, in and of itself, was reason enough for people to visit." She went on to say that the new status heightens eligibility for grants to market the state ferries to tourists and develop new interpretative brochures or displays for the ferries.

I would like to offer a few personal examples supporting this special Alaska experience. Whenever I'm on the phone with an out-of-state business, political or social contact, I engage in a conversation about Juneau. People ask a lot of questions about weather and sights to see. (These days they often also ask what Alaskans think of former Gov. Sarah Palin.) They frequently mention that they have always wanted to take a cruise ship tour, but don't have the money. I promote the ferry system as a less expensive way to travel up the Inland Passage, enjoy good food and have a stateroom if they choose. Or, sleep out on the back deck, protected from rain and warmed by overhead heat lamps, on lounge chairs, as many Alaskans do.

I go on to say that it is a great opportunity to interact with Alaskans who routinely travel that way, rather than with a ship full of out-of-state tourists. I mention there is an AMHS Web site for further info and reservations. The folks to whom I describe all of this are universally appreciative of the new information, and, an interpersonal break in their routine.

Some years ago, I arranged a shared ferry trip with three long-time women friends from the San Francisco Bay area. I flew down to Seattle to meet them and we ferried to Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka, staying overnight to sightsee in each town and then catching a ferry to the next place, all the way up to Juneau. It was great fun and a wonderful opportunity to explore the diverse communities in Southeast as cruise ship passengers never can.

All of this unique experience would be lost with the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan Update June 2009. Alternatives A through E, put out for public scoping, are all disastrous. They are strategies for sinking the ferry system. Public needs and desires are drowned out with budget-cutting attacks and rhetoric. Why isn't the Department of Transportation making a priority of maintaining and improving the most important and reliable transportation system connecting the communities of Southeast Alaska and the Lower 48 states?

The Bellingham terminus should be maintained and twice-a-week service reinstated. Both Wednesday and Friday ferries were always full. Many Juneauites and other Alaskans have occasion to visit Bellingham and Seattle. Many have even moved there. These two mainline ferries should be maintained and replaced as necessary. More shuttle ferries to run between northern routes should be in addition to, not in-place of the long-route ferries from southernmost points of the Inland Passage (and those that cross the Gulf of Alaska). More roads and small air carriers are not an acceptable substitute.

Public input will be taken until July 31, 2009. The Web site for details of the plan and input is DOT.state.ak.us/SATP.

Let DOT hear from you. A lot is at stake.

• Dixie Hood is a longtime Juneau resident.



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