Alaska's ferries need some bond attention

Posted: Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gov. Sarah Palin's proposed capital budget provides little for Alaska's 3,737-mile marine highway, sailed by 11 ships. It serves more than 30 communities along the North Pacific coast from Bellingham, Wash., to Dutch Harbor.

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Haines residents Steve Homer and Ray Gelotte started Alaska ferry service in 1948 between Juneau's Tee Harbor and Haines and the highway to northern Alaska. They used a World War II landing craft, the Chilkoot. The Territory of Alaska bought their business in 1951 and improved it with the Chilkat, since retired.

After statehood was granted in 1959, the Alaska Legislature approved putting a $23 million bond issue before the voters, pushed by legislators from Southeast, especially Ketchikan's Reps. J. Ray Roady and Oral Freeman, and by the Southeast Conference.

After approval of the bonds in the November 1960 election, the state had the ferries Malaspina, Taku and Matanuska constructed for Southeast service and the Tustumena for the Kodiak-Homer-Seldovia run. Other ships came later with service to Seattle (later Bellingham) and the demand for service by outlying communities in Southeast.

There were six bond proposals on that ballot in 1960. The most controversial, Proposition 2, was a bond to finance the ferry system. It almost went down to defeat because of strong opposition in the Anchorage area. Out of 52,000 ballots cast, ferries won by only 2,400.

The current problem facing the ferry system is that assets on that lengthy "highway" are wearing out and there are no plans in the governor's budget for upgrading, much less plans to reconfigure the fleet to match the change in traffic patterns.

The fleet was originally designed to serve 15 percent of the state's population in Southeast, plus Kodiak. Now two thirds of the northbound ferry travelers end up in Anchorage or Fairbanks, according to a McDowell Group study.

Capt. William H. Hopkins recently retired from the ferry system after 30 years, having served on every route and on most of the ships. He says the Bellingham and westward routes have gained traffic so that ships operating on those runs make money, break even or lose little. Traffic throughout the system has increased the past couple of years, thanks to promotion of the system. That promotion should continue.

Westward and Bellingham traffic is increasing while Prince Rupert traffic is declining because of increasing hassles at the border caused by terrorists' threats.

Hopkins recommends more runs a week from Juneau's Auke Bay to Whittier, only 55 miles by road from Anchorage. On one trip the Kennicott could continue direct from Juneau to Bellingham and make money. On other trips the Kennicott could meet mainliners at Auke Bay and transfer passengers.

The late Capt. Richard Hofstad reported years ago that the Bellingham run made money. Hopkins repeats that and says that three ferries should be on the Bellingham run during the summer months. That also justifies a new shuttle ferry between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert.

Hopkins cautions, and anyone familiar with marine transportation realizes, that some plans must be made for replacing the 43-44-year old mainliners, and the Tustumena, after its 43-year beating in the Gulf of Alaska.

He also recommends lengthening the Aurora and LeConte by 20 feet to allow them to again operate 24/7. They are now limited by the Coast Guard to day boat service. A new ship to back up those two would be helpful, the skipper says.

He also says: "The state has been doing everything (transportation plans and high speed ferries) except what is needed, namely, new ships to replace the old ships built in 1963-64."

The governor is proposing a $140 million bond issue for transportation projects, primarily roads throughout the state. But she and the Legislature should add something for ferries. Remember the ferry system needs new assets or upgraded assets as much as highways need new bridges and upgrades. And unlike highways, the ferry system collects more than $50 million a year in fares that go in the state's general fund.

• Contact Lew Williams at

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