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WRANGELL - The Alaska Marine Highway System will discount all passenger and vehicle fares 30 percent this winter to encourage ferry ridership.
The news, announced Monday by the ferry system marketing director Vernon Craig, was greeted with applause at the Southeast Conference annual meeting in Wrangell. The meeting is attended by Southeast Alaska business and civic leaders.
"We've got inventory we're not using and we might as well sell it at a bargain price," Craig said.
The discount is set to run from Nov. 1 to March 31. Also, starting Oct. 1, drivers can ride for free when they pay the fare for their vehicles.
The state typically lets the driver ride for free in the fall and winter, but this is the first time a discount is offered for several months on the passenger and vehicle fares, said marine highway chief Robin Taylor.
The 10 percent fuel surcharge will still apply.
Taylor described ridership in the winter as "miserable." About 85 percent of the highway's passengers are in the summer. Passenger numbers peaked in the early 1990s at about 400,000, but has dropped ever since.
"I don't think we will get 300,000 this year," Taylor said.
About 75 percent of riders are Alaskans, Craig said. The state is also running advertisements with the media and doing direct mail this fall and winter to get numbers up. Promotions will feature opportunities to shop, see grandchildren and attend city festivals.
Craig said the state will work with Juneau's Perseverance Theatre and the Juneau Symphony on scheduling.
He also said the state is set to start electronic ticketing, in which customers could print out tickets at home and present them to the ferry staff without having to go inside the terminal office.
Such promotions worked for Pelican this summer, Taylor said. Ridership to the village was as low as 18 passengers per ship over the past 10 years. When the state offered a weekly day run from Juneau to Pelican this summer, numbers ranged from 190 to 205.
The summer Pelican run still did not make a profit, with revenues at $14,000 and costs at $18,000.
"But it gets closer, doesn't it?" Taylor said.
Taylor is not sure if the discounts will pay off in the end. He said it wasn't easy to convince others to let him offer the discount.
"I may be crazy as a loon to try this, but I have to do something. Charging people more money is not going to work," he said.
Andrew Petty can be reached at email@example.com.