My turn: State seeks to maximize ridership on fast ferries

Posted: Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Enough has been said about your erroneous fares for ferry travel between Juneau and Haines and Skagway, as reported in the Thursday, Aug. 11 paper.

Suffice it to say we at the Alaska Marine Highway System would certainly like to see the fares more in the range of what you reported ($134 and $171, respectively), and are considering discounted fares for the winter schedule.

Our experience this summer in offering discounted fares to Pelican, Bartlett Cove, and Cordova clearly shows a favorable response by the public. We hope to continue and expand on that idea, as we work to improve ferry service to coastal communities.

Your follow-up article on August 12, regarding public comments on the AMHS proposed operating plan, deserves a response. First, regarding the assertion that Sitka will lose two sailings per week of the fast ferry, this is the same change from summer to winter as Sitka had last winter, when we downsized from two crews to one. So, there is no less service to Sitka than they had last winter. The Fairweather visits Sitka two times a week in the summer, and once a week in the winter. In addition, Sitka will be served multiple times each week by mainline ferries throughout the winter.

Second, regarding the comment from a former marine highway employee that better service is coming at the expense of the residents of Prince William Sound, I think it would be helpful for your readers to understand the background of that person. At least two former directors of the Alaska Marine Highway System were instrumental in committing the state to the purchase of the fast vehicle ferries. That decision has now cost the state more than $150 million - $76 million to buy two boats, and more than $75 million in new terminals.

Some in the Knowles administration must have thought the fast ferries were going to be some sort of panacea, and promised a level of service to users of the system, especially in Prince William Sound, that simply was not realistic. For example, the Knowles administration's Prince William Sound Transportation Plan projected the fast ferries would actually have a positive revenue flow of $2.8 million annually (in 2020). This is just absurd. The traffic between Cordova, Valdez and Whittier is too low in the winter to support one fast ferry, let alone two, as that transportation plan promised. On the other hand, by deploying the Aurora this winter in Prince William Sound, Cordova will actually have 20 percent more sailings than it would have if the Chenega had operated there all winter. And, they will have 2½ times more sailings than they have ever had in the past.

At $38 million each, the fast ferries are very expensive vessels, and they cost a lot to operate. They consume 600 gallons of diesel per hour. In their original concept, they were to be run by a crew of six, but our union contracts have three times that number, so there are no savings there to offset the high consumption rate of fuel.

Our objective in the way we propose to deploy these very expensive vessels this winter is to maximize their ridership and fully utilize them between our major population centers in Southeast - Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan - where 70,000 isolated Alaskans live along this route. That cannot be done in Prince William Sound.

We would agree that the waters of Prince William Sound and Lynn Canal can be very rough, but they are not more extreme than Stephens Passage and Clarence Strait. Every body of water has its own, unique characteristics. All the computer modeling in the world, or adapting data from other areas, will not give us the information we need, and which we will obtain through running the fast ferries on those particular bodies of water in the wintertime.

We intend to fully utilize these expensive vessels and, through fare reductions and convenient, frequent schedules, gain some additional revenues to offset the high costs of operation.

• Robin Taylor is the deputy commissioner for marine transportation for the Murkowski administration.

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