Southeast Conference to host marine highway talks

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2007

The future of the Alaska Marine Highway System will be a hot issue at next week's Southeast Conference annual meeting in Skagway, conference organizers said Thursday.

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The conference, which has 150 member groups, will meet from Monday to Thursday.

The Southeast Conference is an economic development organization that includes representation from local governments, businesses and individuals throughout Southeast Alaska. The organization formed in 1958 to advocate for creating the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The system's fleet is aging and mechanical issues are causing more and more disruptions in service.

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"Without some plan for the future, there's no way for anyone to know whether there will be a ferry system five and 10 years out," said Bob Doll, a Juneau Assembly member and the former head of the ferry system.

Replacing the ferries, some more than 40 years old, will cost the state around $100 million. In addition, the state must allocate at least $100 million each year to operate the ferries, according to Doll. The ferries earn back at least half of that each year.

"One of the difficulties that the ferry system has at the moment is there is no plan for new construction for replacing the ferries, and the ferries are getting old," Doll said, adding there is always some federal money available for fleet replacement.

Shelly Wright, executive director of the Southeast Conference, agreed that transportation would be the biggest issue at this year's conference.

"Funding for the Alaska Marine Highway is being questioned," she said. "The whole system itself needs a huge, enormous overhaul. They've cut back on the communities that have other transportation. We need to go back to square one and look at what we need to do to make it a better system."

Other big topics at the conference will be mining, timber, energy and fishing. Also, a conference committee may decide whether to create a regional solid waste authority.

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