My turn: Ferry system returns to its roots for Alaskans

Posted: Thursday, August 04, 2005

Twenty years ago, our Alaska Marine Highway System ran on a regular schedule and, except for a brief period of annual maintenance, every boat ran year-round.

The system operated very well under that philosophy, but about 15 years ago, the philosophy changed. AMHS management began to tie up boats in the winter and only run all boats in the summer.

This moved the system from a year-round marine highway serving coastal Alaska into one with a bifurcated mission - a summer highway dominated by tourists, and a winter schedule of infrequent and inconvenient stops using the few boats that weren't tied up.

The extra emphasis on serving the summer tourists had the unintended consequence of putting the system into a downward spiral. In addition to less year-round service, the problem was compounded by higher ticket prices.

With higher prices and less service, the AMHS started losing riders in 1994, and dropped from a peak of 396,543 passengers down to 297,965 in 2003.

The Murkowski administration is trying to turn this situation around by moving toward a year-round schedule of consistent, reliable service at new, lower fares.

New, lower fares have never actually happened until this summer, when we tried a couple of special fares, with very encouraging results.

For example, we have a regular schedule to Pelican from Juneau, which historically has carried an average of 18 passengers. We dropped the fare in half and promoted this trip in the local papers. Each sailing since the promotion began has seen between 140 and 200 passengers taking the trip.

Critics have complained that this is a "loss leader." But is it?

A loss leader is an item a business sells at a loss in order to get customers in their store to buy other things they need at regular price. In fact, every fare on any AMHS vessel is sold at a "loss," because the general fund subsidizes the marine highway by about 50 percent. We know we can't eliminate that subsidy, but we want to reduce it by making the system more efficient.

It's pretty clear that if we reduce the price of a ticket, our riders will come back. We are looking at how we can cut the price on all routes and schedules throughout the fall-winter-spring.

We will shortly present a new schedule that will provide for additional service to Alaskans during the fall-winter-spring. The proposed schedule adds significantly more stops systemwide. Key to successfully adding stops in the schedule is to minimize the number of vessels taken out of service.

Over the last 15 years, it has become almost a mantra to tie-up vessels over the winter, some for as much as six or eight months. Yet, when all costs are factored in, the expected savings of taking a vessel out of service may be less than what was hoped for.

To make the system operate more efficiently, we also will supplement it with additional shuttle routes to feed traffic onto the mainline ferries. These include the LeConte's service to northern Panhandle communities, the Lituya shuttle between Metlakatla and Ketchikan, and the Inter-Island Ferry Authority's Hollis shuttle.

Over time, we will transition into an intermodal system of roads, shuttles, and mainliners providing economic travel options with significantly improved regularity and frequency. This was the original mission of the Alaska Marine Highway System, and it operated very well under that philosophy.

We are working to return this system to one that provides basic transportation for Alaskans. Our long-term goal is to set a two-year basic schedule that can be relied on systemwide. We recognize how frustrating it is for ferry users to not have a "cast-in-stone" basic schedule.

Our new fall-winter-spring schedule is now available. We have scheduled two teleconferences (one for Southeast and one for Prince William Sound-Southcentral-Southwest) for public comment on Thursday, Aug. 11. We ask for the input and good ideas of ferry user groups and all interested Alaskans.

• Robin Taylor is deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.



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