What happened to the "test" of the fast ferries this winter? I read recently in the Juneau newspaper that Governor Murkowski said the fast ferries are beginning to look like a failed experiment and were a waste of money. He said that it's doubtful that he will exercise the state's option to buy two more such vessels. Those conclusions come after just a few days of operating the Chenega's passenger service from Juneau to Ketchikan. We were told by the Alaska Marine Highway System that the Chenega needed to operate in Southeast Alaska this winter to test the ability of the fast ferries to handle the winter weather and sea conditions. Now, we are finding out that weather and seas had very little to do with the test since its success is being based on passenger load.
What kind of test is that? The Chenega was moved to Southeast Alaska without any planning or public involvement. Very little advertising was done to build the passenger load prior to the start of scheduled service. The service was started during the winter, which is traditionally the slowest time for passenger loads for the ferry system. If the test was to be based on passenger loads, then those familiar with the AMHS knew the test was set up to fail from the start. Following this logic, the entire AMHS has failed as none of the mainline or feeder ferries are carrying passenger or vehicle loads anywhere close to capacity in the winter, yet they operate 24/7 with crews many times the size of those on the fast ferries.
The governor stated that the vessels are too big for the number of people that they are serving. He is absolutely correct when referencing the Southeast Alaska market. I made that point this summer when told by the staff at the AMHS that the population they wanted to serve by the fast ferries in Southeast Alaska was about 70,000 people. The population in central Alaska, which can be accessed from Prince William Sound, is over 500,000 people. The math is really quite simple; the most effective location for operation of the Chenega is in Prince William Sound. We have a high-density market within an easy drive of Prince William Sound, but were prevented from developing or pursuing that market for this season when the Chenega was moved out of Prince William Sound.
I find it incredible that after years of planning and market research for deployment of the Chenega in the sound, the AMHS did not allow those efforts be put into effect. Instead, the Chenega was moved to Southeast Alaska this winter for what now appears to be a market test. We did receive great service from the Aurora, but it wasn't the 12-hour round trip connecting the communities in the sound to the mainland, which we had been promised. Maybe part of the reason the Chenega was not allowed to operate this summer in Prince William Sound (for more than a few days) was that it would have been a marketing success. Many in our area feel it could also have been a success during the winter months in the sound. It appears this administration may be getting very poor advice from those running the Alaska Marine Highway System. This wintertime test seemed predestined for failure before Prince William Sound even got a chance to prove we could make the fast ferries work for us.
Tim Joyce is the mayor of Cordova.