By Larry Persily
The Alaska Marine Highway System expects to have its draft fall/winter 2019/2020 schedule available for public comment in mid-July — about six weeks later than last year due to budget uncertainty.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed the state operating budget on June 28, without further cuts to the ferry system appropriation beyond the $44 million already imposed by the Legislature. That represents almost one-third of the marine highway’s budget, likely requiring significant changes in service and/or ticket prices.
The governor in February proposed a cut double that size, about $90 million. Though he accepted the Legislature’s numbers for the ferry system, he vetoed $444 million of legislative appropriations to other state programs.
Now that the ferry system’s budget number is final, management can work up a schedule for after the summer season ends Sept. 30. Until that schedule is final, travelers cannot make reservations.
The marine highway expects to have a draft schedule by mid-July, with a public-comment period through late July including teleconferences to accept comments, spokeswoman Aurah Landau said July 2.
“The Alaska Marine Highway System hopes to have the fall 2019 / winter 2020 schedules ready for booking sometime during mid to late August,” Landau said.
The 56-year-old system has increasingly relied on state funding to cover its operating and maintenance costs. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, state general funds covered more than 60 percent of ferry service spending.
The schedule for last fall and winter generally provided four sailings a week to Haines and Skagway.
In addition to managing with a lot less money, the ferry system has fewer ships. Last year, it sold the Taku, one of the system’s original three ferries, for scrap. The ship had been mothballed since 2015 due to its age and budget cuts. The system’s two all-aluminum fast ferries, the Fairweather and Chenega, each about 15 years old, have been taken out of service and are up for sale.
The system did add the Tazlina to its fleet this year to help serve Lynn Canal, though its lack of sleeping quarters for crew changes means it cannot make a daily round-trip between Juneau, Haines and Skagway — which the fast ferries were able to manage.