By Leigh Armstrong
If the state adopts its money-saving draft fall/winter ferry schedule, Skagway will see just one ferry a week for the first half of November and six weeks from Jan. 15 to March 1. That would be the Matanuska on the week-long Bellingham-to-Southeast Alaska round trip.
During the rest of the seven-month fall/winter schedule, the LeConte will stop in Skagway three days a week to and from Juneau, in addition to the long-haul ferry service most weeks.
The LeConte will be “in a cost-savings layup” and not available Jan. 15 to March 1, according to the draft schedule released July 15 by the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The Matanuska will not stop in Skagway one week each month in the late fall and March through April. During those months, the ferry will go to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, instead of Bellingham, Washington, and will cut out its stop in Skagway.
The draft schedule reflects the reality that the Legislature cut $44 million out of the ferry system budget for the fiscal year that started July 1, taking it from last year’s $140 million to about $96 million. The legislative action was a compromise with Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who had proposed cutting about twice as much from the ferry system budget.
“The draft winter ferry schedule is out. As expected, it’s not what we’d hoped for. The good news is that it’s not as bad as it could have been and we have time to comment on the draft before the schedule is set,” Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata said in his report at the July 18 borough assembly meeting.
Before the governor signed off on the Legislature’s budget plan, there were fears that Skagway might not see any ferry service October through March.
During Jan. 15 to March, when only one ferry a week will stop in Skagway, students will be in the middle of basketball and drama, debate and forensics, both of which present opportunities for students to travel to other schools for competition.
“We saw this coming, unfortunately,” Josh Coughran, Skagway School superintendent, said. “We took measures in the budget to have students fly.”
While students will still get the opportunity to compete, they won’t be scheduled for as many events, he said. Participation in competition will be scaled back to the minimum required to get students a chance at competing at the state level.
“We want them to go to as many events as possible, but this is the reality of the budget,” Coughran said.
“At what point do parents look at the schools of Southeast Alaska and think that they won’t be getting the best education?” the mayor said.
Coaches have already started fundraising to help pay for travel to events.
The activity directors from Southeast schools meet in the fall to decide dates for competitions and events, after the ferry schedule is finalized, Coughran said.
In addition, the Jake Sims Wrestling Invitational, a tournament that brings students from across Southeast Alaska to Skagway, is normally scheduled in February. Coughran said the wrestling club exists separate from the school, and the event may get moved to a different date in order to accommodate travel schedules.
The Skagway School currently has plans to host a basketball tournament and a drama, debate and forensics sometime this coming school year. But in order to for a school to send students to Skagway during the six weeks in winter where there is only one ferry, they will have to budget for plane tickets or keep their students in town a week until the next ferry. Because Skagway does not have a hospital, Cremata said health care is one of his biggest concerns over the lack of reliable ferry service.
While Skagway’s Dahl Memorial Clinic provides general care, the nearest hospital is in Juneau. If residents require specialty care, they typically have to travel to Juneau or beyond, said Dr. John Hischer, the clinic’s behavioral health clinician.
The period when Skagway will get the least amount of ferry service lines up with one of the biggest travel times for medical purposes, as many people plan medical care after the summer season ends, Hischer said.
The clinic is hoping to reduce some of the need for specialty-care travel with TeleMed, a service that allows patients to meet with medical professionals via video conference.
While in normal emergency situations people are taken out of Skagway by air ambulance, Hischer said there were two times recently when individuals had to be transported by ferry because of poor medical conditions.
Cody Jennings, tourism director of the Skagway Convention and Visitors Board, said the town typically expects low visitor traffic during the off-season, but reduced ferry service will make that number even smaller.
Skagway plans events to help during the slow winter months, and the reduced ferry schedule could hurt the Buckwheat Ski Classic, which has historically happened in late March.
Beyond tourism concerns, Jennings said she’s concerned about families who are looking to take time away from Skagway during the winter break. Traveling is popular after the holidays and before the summer season starts. Though she has typically gone to Juneau to catch a flight out of state, Jennings said she’s going to start looking at flights out of Whitehorse as an option.
Skagway is served year-round by Alaska Seaplanes with daily flights to Juneau, though the cost is much higher than the state ferry and passenger, baggage and freight space is limited.
While Cremata hopes the schedule will change to provide more ferry service, the municipality knows it could get worse. “We must also consider a worst-case scenario where more budget cuts result in losing winter ferry service entirely,” Cremata said in his report to the assembly.
The deadline for written comments to the draft ferry schedule is Friday, July 26. Comments may be faxed to the Alaska Marine Highway System at 907-228-6873 or emailed to email@example.com.
A teleconference to accept additional public comments and consider change to the Southeast schedule is planned for 10 a.m. Monday, July 29. The toll-free number for the teleconference is 1-515-604-9000, access code 279613.
Skagway, and other communities, have talked about creating a municipally owned ferry system. The assembly decided in May asked for more information from an economics consulting firm. Cremata said the work will be presented to assembly as soon as it comes in and that the ferry is a high priority issue for Skagway.
“In my opinion, it’s folly to rely on the state at this point,” the mayor said. “My fear is that this is just the beginning.”