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The Alaska Marine Highway System is planning to increase ferry service to its southern terminus in Bellingham, Wash., next summer, after vehicle capacity has been nearly maxed out this summer.
That's something that has been sought by tourism advocates hoping to expand the mix of visitors coming to Alaska.
Ferry service to Bellingham had been cut in previous years as a cost-saving measure. That resulted in ferries traveling nearly full, but limited the number of visitors who could come and made travel less convenient for Alaska residents as well.
Ferry system spokesman Roger Wetherell said the vehicle deck on the M/V Columbia has been 96.8 percent full so far this summer, with passenger capacity at 73 percent, he said.
In response, the ferry system is proposing to add the M/V Kennicott to the Bellingham run, doubling summertime service next year.
That will "supplement the current service from Bellingham by the motor vessel Columbia and bring more independent travelers to Alaska," said Jim Beedle, deputy commissioner for marine operations with the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The news of the change of policy on Bellingham service comes as the ferry system has released what it is calling draft "patterns" for its spring and summer 2001 schedule.
The ferry system will hold public meetings on the proposed patterns next week. Final schedules will be released by fall.
Wetherell said the summer schedule was released by Oct. 1 last year, in time for summertime planning purposes, and he expects an early release again this year.
"We previously received criticism for not getting the schedules out soon enough and a lot of those criticisms were justly deserved," he said.
The draft sailing pattern is available at www.ferryalaska.com, Wetherell said.
The most significant change to the schedule will be the additional service to Bellingham and maintenance of added service to the Aleutian chain.
The most notable part of the new schedules is a lack of changes. Wetherell said there's been a concerted effort to develop a reliable schedule in an attempt to rebuild service.
That appears to be working, he said. Passenger traffic is up 4.4 percent compared to 2009, while vehicle traffic is up 3.0 percent.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@ juneauempire.com.