By Leigh Armstrong

Residents of Skagway and other Southeast communities expressed their support for more frequent ferry service at a public meeting held to gather comments on the Alaska Marine Highway’s draft schedule for fall and winter sailings.

State officials started the July 29 teleconference by reminding people that the ferry system budget was cut by $44 million this year — almost one-third — presenting a scheduling challenge.

Under the draft schedule, Skagway would see just one ferry a week for the first half of November and for six weeks from Jan. 15 to March 1. 

The fall/winter schedule starts Oct. 1, and travelers cannot book reservations until the ferry system adopts a final plan.

Jim Stanford of Haines brought up that even though Skagway and Haines residents have the opportunity to drive out of town and connect with the Alaska Highway in Canada, people rely heavily on the ferries in the winter. 

“Why don’t you put toll roads around Anchorage?” Stanford said.

The governor had proposed an even deeper cut to the ferry budget and schedule. Legislators settled on the one-third reduction in state funding.

Ellen Larson of Haines said the population of Haines is older and may have a need for more frequent travel for medical care, a concern that was also raised by Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata in a July 22 interview. 

“With one ferry a week, that’s a long time to wait for a medical emergency,” Larson said at the teleconference. 

Jaime Bricker of Skagway said people in his community can’t receive medical attention in Canada and must rely on going to Juneau or Seattle for specialty care. 

“For us to be confident on getting to Juneau or Seattle, we are reliant on the ferry system,” said Carl Mulvahill of Skagway. 

To get to Juneau when there is just one ferry a week, flying is the only option if a traveler cannot wait. Besides, bad weather can ground flights, adding to the transportation problem.

Pelican Mayor Walt Weller acknowledged that the ferry schedule is difficult to put together with the deep cuts in state funding, but certain communities could not survive without the ferry. “We absolutely need to keep the ferry schedule, minimal as it is,” Weller said. The draft schedule includes just one stop a month in Pelican in October, November, December, March and April, and no service in January and February.

Cremata is cautious that reduced ferry service may become the new normal. The municipality is currently working with the McDowell Group, a Juneau-based economics consulting firm, to look into options of Skagway owning and operating a ferry — and its financial viability.

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority, which runs a small vessel between Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan, is a similar concept, but it requires a $250,000-a-year subsidy, according to a February news report from Ketchikan public radio station KBRD. 

“Is this problem going to get better in the future? I don’t know. I do know we need to continue moving forward on a backup plan and prepare for the worst,” Cremata said.