Empire editorial: Scrutiny of ferry use is fair and necessary

Posted: Wednesday, October 13, 2004

G ov. Frank Murkowski's use of Alaska's ferries for special trips has been in the news lately for good reason. Despite the administration's protests that political opponents are making a mountain out of a mole hill dug long ago by previous governors, the diversion of Southeast Alaska's basic transportation system for purposes other than basic transportation is questionable.

Southeast residents have raised questions about a special sailing of the Kennicott across the Gulf of Alaska in advance of a Council of State Governments meeting late last month in Anchorage. The meeting drew 1,500 government officials from around the country; the $74,000 sailing from Juneau to Seward apparently drew none of them, as the state could not confirm that any of the 26 people on board came for the conference.

The administration's rationale for the effort makes sense. Promotion of Alaska's grandeur - and its unique extended ferry service - is good business. In this case what's debatable is whether it was a good gamble to spend money on a sailing ostensibly meant to attract government officials by making their trip to the Far North doubly expensive and lengthy. It seems wishful thinking at best.

A chief defense of the Kennicott sailing - and for use of the Taku by the governor to show off cruise ship tourism development at Hoonah - has been that the Alaska Marine Highway System since its inception has diverted ferries for special uses. The administration's examples have included an extra stop at Hoonah for participants in Juneau's Gold Medal Basketball tournament; an extra stop at Hoonah for participants in the Celebration Native cultural festival; extended Malaspina service for participants in the Klondike Relay race; an extra sailing of the Tustumena to bring state legislators to Juneau in January. The difference for most of these alterations in schedules is that they were made to enhance ferry service for the people who rely on it and for whom the boats were built. Gold Medal, Celebration and Klondike all are major events requiring extra transportation, and the whole purpose of paying public funds for a ferry system is to help Alaskans get around. The delivery of legislators to Juneau also has a clear public purpose; whether by ferry or by Alaska Airlines, the state is going to pay for that transport.

Finally, Tom Briggs of the Alaska Department of Transportation has asserted that media reports of the sailings were driven by unfriendly legislators or others bent on criticizing the administration during election season. His remarks are untrue and perplexing. The governor is not up for re-election this year; his daughter's Senate campaign has no apparent connection to the ferry schedule. The stories arose out of public concerns and even letters to the editor, and at least in the Empire did not rely on any politicians, unfavorable or otherwise.

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