Alaska's ferries saw a big boost in ridership this summer, with schedule changes meaning thousands more passengers came through Juneau than last year.
Officials with the Alaska Marine Highway System reported to the new Marine Transportation Advisory Board during a meeting Wednesday in Juneau. The board was created by the Alaska Legislature earlier this year and replaces a similar board established by executive order of the governor.
Jim Beedle, deputy commissioner for marine operations, reported that ridership was up at a time when economic factors suggested it might decline.
"I would have expected our numbers to be down this year, with the people who didn't travel the Alcan and the people who stayed at home.
Instead, schedule changes seemed to have drawn more riders to the system, but at some cost on some routes.
"It worked exactly the we thought it was going to work," Beedle said.
More service in Lynn Canal boosted ridership there, both between Juneau and the ports of Skagway and Haines at the north end of the canal. Also contributing there was the regular run between Haines and Skagway, allowing tourists to complete the "golden circle" route through Canada that local tourism businesses rely upon.
The ferry system boosted Lynn Canal service by replacing the fast ferry Fairweather with the mainline ferry Malaspina, which was able to carry far more vehicles than the smaller fast ferry.
Fast ferry service to Sitka greatly boosted ridership there by cutting travel times, Beedle said.
"It goes to prove the importance of convenient daytime schedules," he said.
Ridership from Juneau to Sitka increased 61 percent, to 8,361 passenger trips, the largest increase in the system, he said.
Those gains came at the expense of the Bellingham, Wash., run, he said, on which the Malaspina had previously operated. The Malaspina carried many more passengers and vehicles than it did when it ran to Bellingham, but brought in less revenue.
Expenses also declined, because the Malaspina operating as a day boat needed less staffing and consumed less fuel.
With only the Columbia serving Bellingham, however, its profitability rose as well, Beedle said.
"It's crazy the numbers on the Columbia you are gaining," he said.
The ferry system was late last year in getting schedules out as it revamped ferry routes. Beedle said the new changes are intended to be maintained in future years, giving residents some long-sought consistency in their schedules. He said that should help boost ridership over time, as well.
Cathie Roemmich of Juneau, who had served as chairwoman of the previous MTAB was elected chairwoman of the new board as well.
The legislation creating the new MTAB was sponsored by Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, and got strong support from other Southeast legislators as well.
Roemmich, who also serves as executive director of Juneau's Chamber of Commerce, said the charter for the new group calls for it to consult with the Department of Transportation on a plan for the development and improvement of the marine highway system.
"That is something new that we will be doing," she said.
Roemmich praised Beedle, ferry general manager Capt. John Falvey and other DOT officials for their willingness to work with the board. Under former Gov. Frank Murkowski, relations between the board and Deputy Commissioner Robin Taylor were at times strained.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.