My Turn: The real ferry agenda

Posted: Wednesday, September 08, 2004

It appears the order from the governor's office is to go on the offensive to repair the public-relations debacle Murkowski finds his administration in. Commissioner Barton's recent Sept. 1, 2004 "My Turn," was just another "good soldier" following orders from his superiors.

Barton's statements have me wondering just how nave he thinks we Alaskans are, or is it my lack of understanding what people who are politically appointed must do to keep in the good graces of their boss. I rise in defense of Empire publisher Robert Hale's comments in the Sunday paper of Aug. 29, and also in support of my fellow Alaska Marine Highway Service vessel employees, whose main concern is providing safe, dependable marine transportation to family and friends in our coastal communities.

The move of AMHS headquarters to Ketchikan was purely a political issue and was never based on facts or fiscal concerns. No spin doctor can hide the facts; the actions taken by the Murkowski administration were to privatize AMHS shore-side management - assisting the Ketchikan economy was just an effect. With only 160 vessel employees living in Ketchikan, improving communications with the 250 vessel employees living in Juneau will not improve. Ironically, Ketchikan vessel employees were told earlier this year that their Ketchikan-based jobs totaling 104 on the Kennicott and the Taku were going to Juneau as a cost-savings measure. Fortunately, the direction of AMHS changes more drastically and often than the tide in Ward Cove and the 54 Ketchikan jobs on the Kennicott were spared for the time being.

Privatization of our ferry system has been the mantra of this administration for the last two years. For Commissioner Barton to claim that "this has not been a consideration" is untrue and insulting to those who know what really is going on behind closed doors. With just six ferry system workers headed to Ketchikan, the Murkowski plan has worked; to date several Alaskan jobs have been awarded to private contractors and more are on the way as DOT&PF struggles to maintain the operation. Without key employees assisting vessel operations, the U.S. Coast Guard may be forced into shutting down vessel operations and return Southeast Alaska to the level of service we all enjoyed 60 years ago; none.

With increased Federal regulation and national security measures, the operation of our ferry system requires much more than it did 40 years ago. Keeping our vessels running takes more than fuel; vessel and shore-side supervisors are required by federal law to turn in operational reports and documentation on a weekly basis to the U.S. Coast Guard. Failure to provide that information or upkeep of those records could lead to a shutdown of the operation.

I pray that Alaska's marine highway will be able to survive the coming year.

We need to keep the politics out of the Alaska Marine Highway System. With several factions pulling the governor's office in different directions, it appears that there is no focus or clear goal for marine transportation to our Alaskan coastal communities. We all can agree that our ferry system is an integral part of our economy, but the future is not promising. With the influences of partisan "good old boy" politics, big business interested only in increasing personal profits and the privatization efforts that are decimating key public servants who make up AMHS, we have the ingredients to create the "perfect storm" - a storm so devastating that it will years to rebuild and restore transportation to coastal Alaska.

The war of words is on, with headlines such as "Ferries need $20 million to stay afloat" or "Ferries nearly bankrupt" adding fuel to the fire regarding subsidy levels. It is not mentioned in the article that the Murkowski administration demanded AMHS provide more service in 2005 than in any previous year with no regard to the increase in costs. According to projected schedules for the 2005 fiscal year AMHS has been forced to increase service by 50 more operational weeks than in previous years. It doesn't take a GED to figure out that any additional weeks of operation will increase the overall operational costs and then perhaps a $20 million short fall in the operational budget.

• Darryl Tseu of Juneau is the regional director of Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific-Alaska Region.

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