In Juneau, the Alaska Marine Highway System is a crucial link to the rest of Southeast Alaska and the world, but for most candidates for governor it's not a top campaign priority.
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For Democrat Tony Knowles, however, strong support for the state ferry system is part of shoring up his support in Southeast before the Nov. 7 general election.
"I'm ready to revitalize the Alaska Marine Highway System," Knowles told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce during a recent visit.
He blasted current Gov. Frank Murkowski for "political mismanagement" that he said has left the system in disarray.
Sarah Palin, Knowles' Republican opponent, declined several opportunities to comment on the ferries. Spokesman Curtis Smith said no one had asked her about ferries, and he did not know where she stood on them.
Knowles spokesperson Patty Ginsburg said she was not surprised that Palin declined to reveal a position on ferries.
"She doesn't say anything about much of anything, and the ferry system is no different," she said.
Independent gubernatorial candidate Andrew Halcro also has been critical of current management of the state ferries and said he recognizes their importance to Southeast. He told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce that he knew from running his business that it takes it takes time to make something succeed.
"The state keeps experimenting with ferry routes and schedules that are being changed before they have time to take hold," he told the chamber, according to a position paper he provided.
Murkowski's appointed head of the ferry system, Robin Taylor, disputed Knowles comments and tore into the former governor. The mismanagement of the ferry system, he said, came under the Knowles administration.
Taylor is a controversial Republican former senator and legislative critic of the ferry system who was appointed to oversee it as a deputy director of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. He said the ferry system had 400,000 annual riders when Knowles came into office and 290,000 when he left.
"I think that takes a level of mismanagement that is almost beyond belief," Taylor said.
Taylor's predecessor, Bob Doll, said there had been a decline but attributed it to growth in the cruise ship industry that coaxed many tourists away and the growth of air travel that siphoned off many residents.
"I think air travel has become a major competitor, at least in and out of Alaska," Doll said.
Doll said Knowles supported the ferry system when he was governor and would strengthen the system if he is elected again.
"Tony Knowles was good for the Marine Highway System, and the Marine Highway System is good for Juneau," he said.
Among Knowles' strengths was his ability to defend it from Republican attacks in the Legislature, such as constant attacks from Taylor, according to Doll.
"Knowles defended the system in the Legislature against Taylor, who did nothing to improve the Marine Highway System" after he was named by Murkowski to oversee it," Doll said.
Taylor said he is doing everything he can to boost ridership, in contrast to Knowles who tied up boats in periods of low ridership to save money. Taylor said he's been rebuilding ridership, 310,000 last year, by operating more often.
"I ran every single boat that was runable," he said.
Doll said that when Knowles was governor, he invested in new ferries, including the Kennicott and the fast ferries Fairweather and Chegena.
"No ferry construction has started under Murkowski. Roads are more important to him than ferries. The Murkowski administration disdain for the ferry system is obvious," Doll said.
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