By Larry Persily
State ferry service for Skagway would continue to diminish under the proposed summer schedule released Jan. 21. Public comments on the plan are due by Feb. 3.
The draft summer timetable for the Alaska Marine Highway System shows just three sailings a week in and out of Skagway half the weeks May through September, alternating with four sailings a week the other half.
And only two of those sailings each week would connect Skagway and Haines, something that very much concerns Mayor Andrew Cremata.
The Tazlina, the newest ferry operating in the fleet, cannot make the Juneau-Haines-Skagway round trip in a single workday for the crew, and there are no sleeping quarters on the ship to accommodate a crew change. Operating with that constraint, the ferry will spend its summer making separate Juneau-Skagway and Juneau-Haines runs, without stopping in both Lynn Canal communities on the same voyage.
The lack of more frequent Skagway-Haines service would disrupt summer travel on the popular Golden Circle Route, which attracts visitors who make the drive one way between the two Southeast communities via the Haines and Klondike highways through the Yukon in conjunction with a ferry trip.
The cutback in Skagway-Haines ferry service to just twice a week “pretty much negates that,” the mayor said Sunday. It would be less than half the scheduled service of last summer.
More than 16,000 passengers and 7,500 vehicles traveled between Skagway and Haines in fiscal year 2018, the most recent numbers available. It was the second-highest combined total in the past decade.
The borough will submit written comments to state officials by the Feb. 3 deadline, reminding them “how valuable the Golden Circle travelers are,” and pointing out other shortcomings in the draft schedule, the mayor said.
Another problem with the proposed schedule, Cremata said, is the lack of any ferry service on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Fridays, severely limiting midweek travel.
The draft schedule shows seven of the ferry system’s nine vessels in service this summer, with the 43-year-old Aurora out of service until a decision is made whether to repair the vessel, and the Hubbard, which was launched about a year ago, kept out of service to save money.
The draft schedule is available online at http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/share/schedule/considerations.pdf. Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or faxed to 907-228-6873.
A Department of Transportation teleconference to hear comments on the draft schedule for Southeast ferry service is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4. The toll-free number to participate in the teleconference is 1-515-604-9000, access code 279613.
In deciding on the final summer schedule, ferry system management said they want to hear from communities about any special events, including the dates, arrival and departure times needed for each event.
The summer sailings will be available for booking after the state adopts a final schedule. This year’s work is several months behind the summer 2019 schedule, which was announced and available for reservations in December 2018.
The draft summer schedule is based on available state funding, which was significantly reduced for the fiscal year that will end June 30. Faced with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal to slash state funding for the Marine Highway System by two-thirds, the Legislature last year scaled back that number and cut the annual state appropriation by about one-third, or about $44 million.
The summer operating plan “is designed to meet community service needs while staying within available funding levels,” John Falvey Jr., general manager for the ferry system, said in his Jan. 21 letter announcing the proposed schedule.
The governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is essentially unchanged from this year. Lawmakers convened in Juneau on Jan. 21 to start work on the new budget.
A legislative attempt on Jan. 24 to override the governor’s veto of $5 million in stopgap funding for the ferry system this year failed, coming up eight votes short of the three-quarters majority of 45 needed to overturn a veto.
The deterioration of state ferry service was evident this past weekend, when mechanical problems and high winds forced cancellation of the Matanuska’s voyage from Juneau to Skagway on Saturday, stranding the Skagway high school basketball teams at the Juneau ferry terminal for the night, Cremata said.
The next scheduled ferry is not until Feb. 1. But that would be the Matanuska, and its status was uncertain on Monday due to engine troubles. Skagway is at the start of a budget-cut-induced stretch of six weeks this winter with only one ferry a week, until the first week of March.
The threat of a week-long stay in Juneau or expensive plane tickets was alleviated Sunday when the state decided to charter a vessel from Allen Marine for a Juneau-Haines-Skagway-Juneau voyage on Monday. The passenger vessel was due to leave Juneau at noon, arriving Skagway at 4:30 p.m. Monday.
Borough Manager Brad Ryan was in Juneau on other business over the weekend and worked to ensure that the basketball players, coaches and chaperones had better accommodations and food for their Sunday night stay than was available at the ferry terminal on Saturday night, the mayor explained.
In his continued push to minimize state funding for the ferry system, the governor on Jan. 17 created the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Group. He directed the group to report back by Sept. 30 with recommendations “on the future finances and service levels.”
Dunleavy instructed the nine-member group to look at levels of service and size of the fleet, passenger and vehicle fees, labor contracts, contracting out services and how the ferry system should be governed.
The governor will appoint the members after a two-week recruitment process. Cremata said he intends to push to get someone from Skagway on the work group.
“The only way this issue is going to get solved is if people put their heads together,” the mayor said. “Everyone needs to make compromises. … Complaining isn’t going to get us anywhere.”
The governor’s work group is a follow-up to a $250,000 consultant’s report presented to the state Marine Transportation Advisory Board at its Jan. 15 meeting in Anchorage.
That report, by Anchorage-based Northern Economics, determined that the only way to operate the ferry system on $24 million in state funding — half of this year’s level — would be to increase fares 25 percent from 2018 levels, cut wages almost 9 percent from 2018, operate the ferries as much as possible as day boats only, look at stopping all state ferry service to eight smaller communities including Pelican and Tenakee Springs in Southeast, and consider privatizing night crews and lay-up crews aboard the boats.
Under that recommended option, Prince William Sound communities and Homer-Kodiak would go without ferry service all winter.
Commenting that the report was sloppy and contained several errors , state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, who represents Skagway, called it “junior-high level work.”
Advisory board member former Gov. Frank Murkowski, who has lived in Juneau, Ketchikan and Wrangell, said the state needs to look at why ridership on the ferries is down rather than just look for ways to cut the budget.
Skagway’s House member, Rep. Sara Hannan, spoke up at the Jan. 15 meeting for the smaller communities that are losing much of their ferry service to budget cuts: “They feel they’ve been cut off and abandoned by the state.”
It is about the money, state Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon told the advisory board. “We need to transition the system that will reduce the state’s obligation.”