My turn: A road is the best way to improve ferry service

Posted: Friday, August 18, 2006

There have been letters recently requesting proof that the ferry system is expensive and inconvenient and wanting suggestions for improving the ferry system. Using the current ferry system schedule from October 2005 through September 2006, I have suggestions and proof.

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The best way to improve the ferry system is to build the road. This would free up the system to provide better, more convenient service to the other Southeast Alaska communities that will never have road access.

This road is not just about us in Juneau, Haines and Skagway. There were 256 sailings from Juneau to Lynn Canal communities (two or three some days, other days none) by the mainline ferries and the LeConte. The fast ferry only ran 62 days. This means 318 sailings could be put to better use by the rest of Southeast when we can be served by smaller shuttle ferries. We might have enough sailings to provide day boat access to most communities in southeast, not just Haines and Skagway. That is improving the ferry system.

According to the ferry schedule the Alaska Marine Highway north was closed 103 days last year. Not convenient. The total time for a main-line ferry ride (80 percent of the trips) including two-hour boarding time is seven hours to Haines and 8.5 hours to Skagway. As most people would consider convenient hours of travel being from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the ferry trip takes 15 to 17 hours round-trip, it means if the ferry ride north is convenient, it is inconvenient going south and visa versa. The sad thing is on many schedules it is inconvenient both ways. The only ferry that can be called convenient is the fast ferry, of which there is only one, and it was only scheduled to run 62 days in Lynn Canal during the year October 2005 through September 2006. Not convenient.

Convenience is different things to different people. The road can accommodate more peoples' opinion of convenience than the ferry system that is scheduled around all of Southeast Alaska needs, not just ours. Foot passengers will be accommodated by buses that will have a more convenient time schedule than a 4 a.m. boarding. If the buses only run four times a week during the off peak months, it will still beat the ferry system and during the peak they can run as many times during the week as needed. If you don't think this will happen just look at the buses and shuttles that run from Whitehorse to Skagway (109 miles) and back everyday during the summer.

As far as cost, it cost us $600 to take a car and 4 people to Skagway and back. The cost of a round trip, figuring $3.50 per gallon for gas to drive the 87 miles (two hours) from the Juneau ferry terminal at 15 miles per gallon, would be $21 each way ($42). A toll road cost of $25 each way ($50), and a shuttle ferry cost of 13 the rate from Juneau to Skagway (1/6 the distance) would be $200. The total cost would be $292, a savings of $308. Admittedly these figures are estimates but there is a lot of room for still being cheaper.

The road provides increased convenience and access for all of Southeast Alaska. It improves the current ferry system without requiring construction of a new fleet of ferries immediately and it saves money for those who travel to and from Haines and Skagway.

Those that have concerns about difficulty in building or road closures need to drive the road from Skagway to Carcross. This road goes much higher in elevation and is carved out of much more rock than the proposed road and it has "danger avalanche" signs posted in many places, as well as emergency truck turnoffs due to the steep grade. It is 15 miles longer than the 51-mile proposed road.

Those who are worried about bridge construction across the rivers or damage to salmon streams need to look at the roads and bridges in Haines that are next to the Chilkat and Chilkoot Rivers and cross the Chilkat in several places.

If these roads and bridges are good enough for Haines and Skagway, they are good enough for Juneau.

• Tim Whiting is a Juneau resident.

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