The state ferry system spent at least $74,000 last week on an unscheduled trip at the request of Gov. Frank Murkowski.
The Kennicott's four-day special sailing from Juneau to Seward comes less than a month after the Alaska Marine Highway System announced its need for an additional $18 million to continue operations.
Another special trip by the Taku from Juneau to Hoonah this month was expected to cost the ferry system $3,000, though officials said corporate sponsors wound up covering it.
The governor ordered the most recent special ferry sailing to coincide with the state's hosting of this week's annual meeting of the Council of State Governments in Anchorage. The meeting drew more than 1,500 government leaders from across the nation and ends today, according to the state Department of Transportation. The Kennicott crossed the Gulf of Alaska last week, sailing from Wednesday through Saturday.
Only 26 passengers were reported traveling on the 748-capacity Kennicott for the gulf trip and the state couldn't confirm that any of them were headed to the conference, Department of Transportation spokesman John Manly said.
The 382-foot Kennicott was rerouted from its regularly scheduled service in Southeast Alaska to accommodate conferees. The ferry Taku took its place at a cost of $27,000 per day, Manly said.
The four-day trip cost the ferry system roughly $108,000. The revenue generated from the cross-gulf trip totaled about $34,000, Manly said.
Manly said the cross-gulf trip was intended to show off the Alaska Marine Highway System.
But Juneau resident Merry Ellefson, 42, who's married to a ferry system employee, said the administration is using the marine highway inappropriately.
"It's being abused and it's not serving Alaska," she said.
When considering the decision this year to move ferry administrators from Juneau to Ketchikan and contentious union contract negotiations among other issues, Ellefson said many people in Juneau and around the region believe the Murkowski administration is intentionally trying to hurt the system.
"You don't have to be married to (an employee) to look around to see what's going on," she said.
Manly said Murkowski wanted to make the ship available to visitors outside the state to promote the ferry system to Lower 48 visitors.
Becky Hultberg, a Murkowski spokeswoman, said the state intended for more riders to participate in the promotion.
"When you schedule things like this, you don't immediately know what your ridership is going to be," Hultberg said. "We spend millions in this state marketing tourism."
The other trip scheduled by the governor was a ferry from Juneau to Hoonah earlier this month to spotlight the Huna Totem Corp.'s new cruise ship destination, Icy Strait Point.
The state had originally planned to pay about $3,000 in fuel costs, said Tina Dickinson with the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. But the costs of the event reception came in thousands under budget and corporate sponsors covered the fuel expenses.
The corporate sponsors included Icicle Seafoods, Alaska Symphony of Seafoods, Alaska Pacific Bank and Royal Carribbean Cruise Lines, Dickinson said.
The unscheduled sailings are examples of problems within the ferry system under the Murkowski administration, according to Emily Ferry, a member of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and of the organization Better Ferries for Alaska.
She said shifting the ferry schedule to meet the needs of Southeast Alaska riders for special events, such as the Klondike Road Relay, the Kluane-Chilkat Bike International Relay or the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament, often results in a profit for the system and serves the users well.
"When we get into trouble is when we let the whims of the current administration guide the system and I think that's what's happened in this last scenario," she said.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.