My Turn: D.O.T. means Department of Trouble

Posted: Sunday, September 02, 2001

When the Southeast Conference holds its annual meeting in Prince Rupert Sept. 18-20, members will ask state Department of Transportation officials what happened to the promises and why the changes in the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan.

The Southeast Plan was presented to conference attendees last year in Ketchikan and approved reluctantly after a few caveats were added. The alternative to approving the plan with a fast ferry in it was the implied threat - approve it or Southeast's $70 million share of federal transit funds go to the westward.

The Conference is an association of Southeast communities organized in Petersburg in January 1958. The members asked for a federal study of road access to Southeast through Canada and supported the concept of a ferry system. But Conference members say 40 years later, they still want more road access and a more efficient ferry system. Tired of waiting, Wrangell, Petersburg and Prince of Wales communities formed their own Inter-Island Ferry Authority (IFA).

The resolution passed last year by the Conference supports the Southeast Plan as drawn up by the DOT. The problem is that DOT has since changed the plan and failed to follow up on its promises.

After Southeast Plan adoption, DOT delayed inauguration of the north Prince of Wales ferry for IFA from 2003 to 2006, which means it is no longer in the six-year Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan at all.

The federal money for the north POW ferry is being diverted to northern Alaska. This despite the fact that IFA will provide the state match for the northern POW ferry but the state must supply the match to federal funds for using the money elsewhere. Alaska's congressional delegation, which supports the POW ferries, is irritated with DOT over failure to pass the federal funds through to IFA.

DOT hired an Anchorage consulting firm, Northern Economics Inc., to produce a study on why the northern POW route wasn't feasible. The study was flawed, according to a 27-page IFA response.

The strangest conclusion in the study was that IFA had no plan to revise its operations in event traffic volume fails to materialize. IFA officials point to specific contingencies in their operating plan. It is DOT that is unable to accommodate falling traffic. Its volume has declined from a high of 373,000 passengers in 1992 to a low of 301,000 in 1997 and only climbed back to 303,000 in '98. Meanwhile DOT added another large ferry (the Kennicott) and plans adding at least one fast ferry. What's happened?

When DOT began losing passengers it raised rates, discouraging travel. Reservation system glitches resulted in ferries sailing with less than full car decks. Inconvenient ferry schedules had ships calling in a port within hours of each other followed by a day or so of no ferries. DOT tied up ferries for longer periods during winter months, further reducing service. Those tie-ups cost DOT employees who couldn't afford jobs that exist for only part of a year. So DOT is advertising for help or facing more tie-ups. Quite a change from the 1980s when there was a waiting list of over 1,000 to go to work on the ferries.

The shortage of skilled engineering help also has hit headquarters in Juneau, which is one of the reasons that ferry system requests for proposals for services have to be frequently rewritten and re-advertised. Or, the system ends up in a dispute with a contractor, as it has on the construction of the Kennicott, on providing federally required safety training and probably will on the overhaul of the Columbia.

DOT officials have made it plain that they want Ketchikan's shipyard closed and are blocking bonding for Alaska Ship and Dry Dock so it can't bid on new projects. This after running Haltiner Marine Group of Mississippi into Chapter 11 bankruptcy over the Kennicott, landing in a suit it lost with Bender Ship Building in Louisiana and almost running SEA Marine Services of Juneau out of business over a safety training contract. That contract included the University of Alaska Southeast, Ketchikan. DOT is now paying twice as much per trainee as SEA-UAS offered.

By next year, DOT will have lost one of its best routes. The Ketchikan-Hollis (south POW) run that IFA takes over in December is the second most traveled route for Alaska ferries. Traffic between Hollis and Ketchikan was as high as 58,000 passengers in 1992, before DOT reduced runs and caused POW communities to form the IFA. Now, with an average of 40,000 passengers a year, it is second only to Juneau-Haines with 42,000.

It is logical that with the daily and twice-daily service planned by IFA, that the Hollis-Ketchikan run - lost to DOT - again will be the heaviest traveled. That complements the northern POW route out of Coffman Cove to Wrangell-Petersburg because there is a highway the length of POW connecting the terminals.

Again, although DOT's consultant asks how IFA will react to less than expected traffic, how will DOT react to losing one of its best routes while at the same time it adds a ferry?

Southeast Conference members will have more questions for DOT but the most critical ones will come before the Legislature when DOT asks for a $13 million budget increase and tries to explain its mismanagement and what happened to its Legislature-granted $40 million contingency fund in the last four years.

Williams is a retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News, former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents and was secretary-treasurer of the Southeast Conference for its first three years.

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