Big changes are in store for the Alaska Marine Highway System and some local leaders are worried.
Within the last year the ferry system has announced it will move its headquarters and at least 41 jobs from Juneau to Ketchikan, and now other initiatives are in the works, such as changing ferry rates and contracting out village ferry runs and work such as reservations and marketing.
AMHS also has hired former state Sen. John Torgerson of Kasilof to negotiate labor contracts with ferry workers, establish a business plan for the system and cut costs. Torgerson, who formerly served as co-chairman of the Legislature's Senate Finance Committee, built a reputation for trying to cut ferry system funding.
Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Tom Briggs insists there is no plan to contract out ferry service for the communities of Angoon, Kake, Hoonah, Tenakee, and Pelican. But labor deals recently agreed to by three maritime unions would make that possible.
The unions have tentatively agreed to increase workers' pay by 7 percent in the first year of the three-year contracts and by 6 percent for each of the following two years. Other state employees recently agreed to contracts that stipulated no pay increase the first year and no more than 2 percent increases for the second and third years.
Torgerson said the ferry worker increases look high compared to other state employees' raises, but he noted that ferry workers, unlike other state workers, do not get a 3 percent merit increase every year. When asked if the pay increases were part of a deal to include privatization language, Torgerson said: "Well, I'm not going to talk bargaining with you."
Joe Geldhof, a lawyer for the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, which represents about 80 ferry employees, said language allowing non-union employees to handle ferry runs to several villages was part of the deal.
"There was a give and take," Geldhof said. "When people say you sold the village run, you can write that story."
The Inlandboatman's Union of the Pacific-Alaska Region, which represents about 600 unlicensed ferry workers, and the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, which represents about 80 people, also have tentatively agreed to the deal. But the membership of all three unions still must ratify the contract language.
Contracting out the village run to the private sector would allow the state to run that part of the ferry system without union employees and curtail costly union contracts in the future.
Bob Loescher, a Native advocate with the Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp 2 in Juneau, said he is concerned that privatizing the route will make the system less responsive to the public. He said the communities were not contacted before the unions agreed to the contracts.
A recent letter to Loescher from DOT Commissioner Mike Barton stated: "The continued operation of very costly mainline ferries into small ports, regardless of how low the level of traffic might be, cannot be sustained. We are trying to achieve an alternative that will provide an acceptable level of service for small communities."
Barton's letter also assured that the administration is not trying to privatize the system, but simply "contract for the service with the private sector."
Briggs said outsourcing would allow the state to set the level of service a private company would have to maintain to fulfill the contract. Since the grounding of the state ferry LeConte earlier this year, AMHS has contracted with Allen Marine of Sitka to provide ferry service to Angoon and Pelican.
"If the state contracts for our service, as we have with Angoon and Pelican, they deliver the service that we contract for," said DOT spokesman John Manly. "To abandon the town to the private sector is not what we're interested in at all."
Briggs said that if the state contracts out the work, he would ensure that the number of ferries visiting communities and the quality of service would not decline.
"We would never outsource to these communities unless the service was going to be maintained," he said.
Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he's not convinced.
"This is the same kind of language we heard from Mr. Briggs when he said, 'Don't worry. The communities will be involved before moving the ferry system to Ketchikan.' And then that didn't happen," Elton said.
Elton said communities should be involved before a decision is made to hand over part of the ferry system to the private sector. With the creation of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board in 2003 and the hiring of special assistants such as Torgerson, Elton asked: "Who is running the ferry system?"
"I know and respect John Torgerson," Elton said. "But if I were hiring someone to do a marketing plan and a business plan, I would have cast my net wider than a former legislator."
During Torgerson's tenure as co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he repeatedly tried to cut ferry funding.
In 1999 Torgerson introduced a bill that would have required the state ferry Malaspina to pay for its own service to communities on Lynn Canal. The Malaspina, despite being a popular day boat, came up $340,000 short in 1998.
Torgerson also tried in 2000 to shift money for the fast ferry Fairweather to road projects, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Tony Knowles.
Elton said the tenor of the times in the Legislature was to scrutinize the state subsidy for the ferry system but not the subsidy for road construction and maintenance.
"The assumption was that roads are free and ferries are not," Elton said.