Kodiak joins AMHS rallies across the state to support restoring ferry service

Kodiak joined rallies in support of the Alaska Marine Highway System across the state on Tuesday. Though Kodiak’s rally was much smaller than some of the others, community members had plenty to say in support of the ferries.

Robyn Cassidy holds a sign in support of the Alaska Marine Highway System outside the M/V Tustumena dock on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

Hundreds of coastal Alaskans rallied around the state on Tuesday in support of restoring the Alaska Marine Highway System’s regional ferry service. The fleet has been largely idle since the last mainliner in service broke down last month.

In Kodiak, turnout was small — just around 10 people gathered in front of the ferry Tustumena dock downtown. Many were retirees who came by ferry decades ago. Robyn Cassidy is a retired bookkeeper who stepped off the ferry when she was 13.

“This is our highway. This is infrastructure. This isn’t something special,” she said. “We don’t have any other highway and it needs to be funded in full and quickly.”

Cassidy criticized the argument Palmer Sen. Shelley Hughes made in the legislature last month, that living with the transportation difficulties of a remote, coastal city is a choice.

“Coastal communities put an awful lot of money back into the Alaskan economy,” she said. “And it’s really it’s it’s selfish. It’s all I can say. I mean, they have their highways. If we shut down the Anchorage highway to the Valley, they’d be screaming bloody murder.”

Tom Simpler and Budd Cassidy demonstrate in support of restoring ferry service to coastal Alaska near Kodiak’s small ferry dock on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

Cassidy’s husband Budd described ferries as a “lifeline to the outside world,” particularly for isolated communities like Hoonah and Pelican that don’t get regular barge service like Kodiak.

“I’ve seen pictures of empty store shelves in some of the rural communities along the Gulf. So obviously, it’s real critical. Having food in a community, having the ability to travel for medical cares is important, and the ferries provide some of that service.”

A handful of Kodiak residents rally in support of restoring Alaska Marine Highway System service in front of the M/V Tustumena dock on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

Nearby, Arlene Simpler explained that ferries are essential for life on an island.

“People can’t afford to fly all the time. People take their cars over to over to Anchorage to get them taken care of and then they fill them up with groceries and bring them back on the ferry and the Coast Guard people they use the ferry to get to Kodiak,” she said, adding “It’s very difficult.”

From Southeast to the Aleutians, other cities along the coast turned out to rally in full force.

In Juneau, elected state and tribal leaders told 200 people gathered around the Capitol steps that for smaller coastal communities, regular ferry connections are a matter of survival.

People who kind of have no idea — who come from a place of privilege — say, ‘Well, that’s your choice (to live in coastal communities).’ Well, they don’t know what it’s like to be born in a community and to be able to say for 10,000 years my forefathers were born in this area,” said Richard Peterson, tribal president of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “We have no reason that we need to move.”

Sen. Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau) told the lunchtime crowd that Alaska villages deserve a first-world standard of living.

“The store shelves shouldn’t be empty in Alaska communities,” Kiehl said. “They shouldn’t be empty when we’ve got docks and we’ve got vessels and we’ve got skilled people to run ’em!”

More than 200 people rallied in support of the ferry system in front of the state capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

In Ketchikan, about 60 people turned out. Some of them were state ferry workers left high and dry by the shutdown. Wade McClennan works on the Columbia which has been tied up since last fall. In the meantime he’s not drawing a paycheck.

There’s a lot of uncertainties because we depend on our benefits,” he told KRBD. “And when you’re the breadwinner of your family, the uncertainty — how there is right now — just causes a lot of anxiety.”

In downtown Haines, more than 200 people gathered to show their support for the system.

Luck Dunbar and his son Archie held a sign with a hand-drawn portrait of President Trump in his characteristic red ball cap. They had a new take on Trump’s campaign slogan.

“We’re just trying to get through to the people that kind of run the show you know?” the elder Dunbar told KHNS. “It’s kind of something off the MAGA hat, but it says ‘Make Our Ferries Great Again.’ MOFGA!”

Out in the Aleutian Islands there are just four ferry trips scheduled for the entire year. Jeff Hancock is an senior officer with the longshoreman’s union and helped organize the rally that brought out about 40 people.

He says it takes a half a week to travel by ferry from the road system to Unalaska.

“But we have people — including myself — who have been stuck in Anchorage for multiple weeks waiting for flights,” he told KUCB, “… and it becomes a realistic option to think about getting on a three-and-a-half day ferry trip if you know you’re going to be able to get home.”

Limited regional ferry service is scheduled to resume next month. But under a draft winter schedule released last month, some coastal communities could go without any service through the end of the year.

Gov. Dunleavy has requested $12 million for supplemental ferry funding. But DOT officials told lawmakers this month that the money is needed for the existing bare bones schedule and would not expand service.

Reported with Jacob Resneck at KTOO in Juneau, Eric Stone at KRBD in Ketchikan, Claire Stremple at KHNS in Haines, and Hope McKenney at KUCB in Unalaska.

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