By Leigh Armstrong
Skagway will get a few additional ferry sailings than first proposed for this winter, but the cost of tickets is going up with a new dynamic-pricing scale that charges more as the vessels get full and a new surcharge for travel into communities during special events.
In the final fall/winter ferry schedule released Sept. 5, Skagway will receive three ferries a week from Dec. 15 to Jan. 19. After that, Skagway will only have the Matanuska coming until Feb. 29. This is an increase of a few sailings over the system’s proposed schedule that had the Matanuska as Skagway’s sole ferry starting on Jan. 15 for six weeks.
The Legislature and Gov. Mike Dunleavy this year cut state funding for the ferry system by one-third, about $43 million, forcing significant reductions in service.
To deal with the budget cut, in addition to fewer sailings, the Alaska Marine Highway System is implementing what it calls dynamic pricing. Under the new structure, passengers will pay more when there is less space available on the ferry.
Dynamic pricing starts as soon as a ferry reaches 30 percent capacity, with a 5 percent higher fare for passengers and 10 percent more for vehicles or cabins. When the ferry is at 90 percent capacity, passengers will pay a 30 percent upcharge and vehicles or cabins will cost 50 percent more.
“It’s something that the cruise lines and airlines do pretty regularly,” Jan Wrentmore, chair of Skagway’s Alaska Marine Highway ad-hoc committee, said during the Sept. 5 borough assembly meeting.
For customers looking to reschedule a reservation, fees will increase as the travel date gets closer. Passengers looking to change their reservation within three days of sailing will be charged a $100 fee. The fee will be $20 for changes two weeks before the travel day.
In addition, the ferry system will add 10 percent to the cost of a ticket for travel four days before and after some special events in coastal communities.
Separate from the budget-cut-induced fare hikes, the state will be dropping Prince Rupert, British Columbia, as a port of call. The Alaska Department of Transportation said it could not comply with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection requirements that armed Canadian law enforcement personnel be present to protect U.S. agents every time a ferry is in port.
The state said it tried working with the city of Prince Rupert and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but neither could make staff available for the ferry terminal.
The last ferry call in Prince Rupert is scheduled for Sept. 30.
While service to Southeast Alaska is scaled back under the fall/winter schedule, there will be no service to Cordova or Valdez for eight months and no service to Kodiak for three months.
Skagway is still pursuing options on creating and managing a municipally run ferry authority, Wrentmore said. She has been talking with the Juneau-based consulting firm McDowell Group about their work for a governance plan on creating and planning if the municipality decides to create a ferry system.
“We want to put together a backup plan in case we find ourselves in the same situation as Cordova or Valdez. Hopefully that day will never come, but Skagway will be doing its homework in advance so we can be prepared,” Wrentmore said.