A long-awaited report on revamping the state ferry system has been finally made public. It comes from the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry Reshaping Working Group, which sent it to the governor three weeks ago.
The group has been meeting since February, and its mission was to review past reports, analyze the data, take public input and define the future needs and purposes of the ferry system.
The report begins by saying that the problems that plague the system are not new and evolved over time and could have been avoided or mitigated. It also says past reports have suggested many system improvements but virtually none have been implemented.
Even so, Kodiak Representative Louise Stutes, who served as the House’s representative on the working group, believes it’s made some headway.
“We have a consensus on some things, and that’s more than has been,” Stutes said. “We know there needs to be a marine highway system. We know it needs to be funded. We know that we need forward funding so it can be dependable.”
Stutes says the working group recognizes that the ferry system can never be what it once was, so its recommendations focus on keeping the system sustainable.
The report also includes 96 pages of public comment from Coastal Alaskans who support the ferry system — to Interior Alaskans — who say it’s a waste of money.
While it could be months before the Department of Transportation takes steps to incorporate the report’s findings into its plans, Stutes says one recommendation should be acted on quickly — to give the Marine Transportation Advisory Board more autonomy – so that it can make operational and planning decisions.
“They need to have more teeth in what they’re able to do, and the legislature can strengthen that board,” Stutes says.
The report also recommends that three of the board’s nine members have marine business expertise.
Although the report outlines ways to reduce the system’s costs and raise revenues, it backs away from a plan to turn the ferry system over to a state corporation, because it might take years to establish it. The working group did leave the option open. It said if problems persist after its recommendations are implemented, then a state corporation might be the next step.
It also gives no clear direction on when or if the Tustumena should be replaced. There is also one recommendation to terminate gulf crossings at Whittier rather than Kodiak, which would require people from Kodiak and other communities on the Aleutian Chain route to drive to Homer, if they wanted to travel to Bellingham. The report also calls for reducing the Tustamena’s run from Kodiak to Dutch Harbor Unalaska to twice a year, in the spring and fall.
Stutes strongly disagreed with those proposals and several others. Her objections were included at the end of the report, in which she wrote about the reduction in the SW run:
“I positively disagree with this option. Two runs per year would not be enough to sustain the communities in SW Alaska. Further, looking at population only does not account for fisheries and fish processing activities, which occur heavily along the chain.”
Stutes also argued that a new advisory board should include regional representation.
In general, the report makes recommendations on how to reduce the system’s costs and raise revenues, including charging more for fares.
The working group’s final report also says the ferry system should:
- Renegotiate labor contracts.
- Privatize crews where possible
- Reduce the size of the fleet, vessel operating days and ferry frequency
- Eliminate service to some communities completely
- Sell or give away the Fairweather, Chenega and Malaspina ferries to save moorage costs of up to two million a year, a process that is already underway.
- Work with tribes or other commercial providers to take over service to communities in which it’s difficult for the current system to provide dayboat service. Among the likely candidates identified for dayboat service: Ouzinkie, Port Lions, Old Harbor, Seldovia, Tatitlek, Chenega Bay, Pelican and Tenakee Springs.
- Consider paying subsidies to private dayboat operators who take over routes.
Here’s a link to the final report and all the associated documents: