The Southeast Conference, a nonprofit corporation active in the Southeast Alaska community, held its Mid-Session Summit in Juneau on Feb. 13 and 14.

One item brought to the table during those days was the reform of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS). Southeast Conference is leading a statewide initiative to reform the AMHS, with the reform being one of its primary projects, said Robert Venables, executive director for the Southeast Conference.

“We have a number of other things ongoing as well, but the ferry system reform initiative is our most visible project and the one that has the most immediate impact right now,” Venables said. A statewide steering committee has been guiding the effort, Venables said, made up of members from a wide range of Alaskan cities.

The goal would be to transition the ferry system into a public corporation, which would manage the AMHS, provide the transportation services connecting communities and provide a continuity of operations and public accountability, according a summary of the initiative on the Southeast Conference’s website.

The public corporation would let private sector expertise spread through the system’s board of directors and reduce exposure to political influence, the summary claims.

Following the Mid-Session Summit, representatives for the AMHS reform had an opportunity for a meeting with the legislature regarding the project.

“It went very, very well,” Venables said. “In a nutshell, we’re really trying to convey that there is hope for viability for the marine highway system and there are a number of steps that could be taken to reach that goal.”

Venables said that there has been “study after study” done to identify problems with the AMHS, but that the reform push is the first comprehensive attempt at creating a solution addressing the ferry situation.

In addition to the local use, the summary mentions that non-resident travel makes up 30 percent of passenger traffic, and 40 percent of the AMHS operating revenue – that includes visitors, but also military and business travelers as well.

At the Mid-Session Summit and related to the state’s visitors, the keynote speaker for Feb. 13 was John Binkley, president for the Cruise Lines International Association Alaska (CLIA Alaska), who announced cruise ship industry projections for the next two years.

“They are just very, very good for Skagway and for Southeast Alaska,” Venables said about the cruise ship numbers.

A press release sent out by CLIA Alaska following the Southeast Conference stated there is an anticipated growth of 19 percent over 2017’s numbers – meaning an estimated 1,310,000 cruise ship visitors in 2019.

“Over the next two years, we will see an increase of $137.5 million in annual passenger spending, which will generate significant revenues for local communities,” Binkley said in the release.

The next annual meeting for the Southeast Conference will be in Ketchikan on Sept. 12-14.

More immediately, Venables said the AMHS reform committee will be looking at the steps needed for reform implementation and continue to engage legislators.

“But we need to get back out across the state to engage citizens, because the legislature is only going to make this a priority if it’s the people’s priority,” Venables said.