By Frank H. Murkowski
It’s past time for the Southeast and coastal Alaska communities to be heard regarding the collapse of our ferry system. It’s time to more forcefully make our Alaska Marine Highway needs known by energizing the Southeast Conference, the Southeast Conference of Mayors and other organizations. Southeastern and coastal Alaska are entitled to have a highway functioning just like our roaded neighbors to the north. The newly passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill provides the federal funding to make this happen if we don’t let it slip away.
The AMHS (Alaska Marine Highway System) was created in the early 1960s. Our new state quickly recognized that Southeast Alaska’s transportation needs could only be served by ferry vessels connecting the major communities of the region. Under the stewardship of then-governor Bill Egan, three vessels were built: the Malaspina, the Taku and the Matanuska. They were in service for over 50 years serving the port of Prince Rupert, which was a Canadian highway connection accommodating communities to the north, including Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines and Skagway. The AMHS was then a significant economic engine stimulating Southeast’s economy to function and prosper.
Under the current state administration, three of the vessels have recently been sold or scrapped.
While the administration says, “There is no plan to cut or destroy the Alaska Marine Highway system,” the real story is in the ridership. With fewer vessels, ridership which had been averaging over 250,000 in 2019 dropped to 135,000 in 2020 and 38,000 in the year 2021. Sailings to communities dropped down to one stop per week, when previously it had averaged every other day. The largest of the vessels, the M.V. Columbia has been berthed at the state-owned Vigor Shipyard in Ketchikan for the last two years.
Service to Prince Rupert is almost non-existent, even though negotiations with Canadian officials have resolved the long outstanding issue of repair to the Prince Rupert terminal.
Excuses offered by the administration for the decline in AMHS traffic include the impact of COVID-19, the shortage of trained crew members and funding for the system. Unfortunately, the mentality behind denying sufficient funding to support the AMHS is that it is not generating enough revenue to cover operations and maintenance costs. It should be obvious that our land highways also don’t collect sufficient revenue to cover operations and maintenance costs; rather, the return to the public is a vibrant and strong Alaskan economy. Southeast must continue to be included in our statewide transportation structure on an equal footing with the rest of Alaska.
The evidence is clear that the AMHS is in grave danger of failing and moving into Alaska’s history books, just as the timber industry did in the 1990s. Should Southeast Alaska lose its public transportation capacity, the impact upon its 32 communities, particularly the small communities, would be devastating.
With attention to management and sufficient funding, it doesn’t have to end that way. As a consequence of the recently passed federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the AMHS is eligible for the following funds:
• $1 billion for a new program that establishes an essential ferry service to support rural communities. The funding money is only available for rural ferry routes over 50 miles in length, of which Alaska has many and other states very few. This program will provide funding to the Alaska Marine Highway System.
• $250 million for an electric or low-emitting ferry pilot program, with at least one pilot to be conducted in the state with the most marine highway System miles — Alaska, which has more than 3,100 miles of marine highway, much of which is in Southeast Alaska.
• $342 million for the Construction of Ferry Boats and Ferry Terminal Facilities Program, of which Alaska should receive $73 million. It provides an authorization for recipients of funding under the program to spend on ferry “operating costs.” Alaska operators who previously received formula funds under this program in FY20 were the Alaska Marine Highway System, Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Inter-Island Ferry Authority and Seldovia Village Tribe.
•Authorizes federal-aid highway funds to the Alaska Marine Highway System to be spent on operation and repair.
Alaska is also eligible for the following funding for ports:
• $2.25 billion for the Port Infrastructure Development Program, which provides critical support to ports big and small throughout Alaska; and
• $250 million for remote and subsistence harbor construction. This will go toward building ports in rural areas, many of which are not connected to a road system and in need of a port, similar to many rural communities in Alaska.
So, there are clearly federal funds available to restructure the ferry system, and those funds must not be diverted to other state projects.
To start off the new year, we should consider the following schedule which is achievable based on our long history in the Prince Rupert route structure: First, we should take the Colombia out of layup, and make it operational by April or thereabouts. It should have regularly scheduled weekly sailings departing Bellingham and proceeding north to serve the other Southeast communities along the route to Juneau.
Second, the motor vessel Matanuska should operate twice weekly from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan and southeastern communities en route to Juneau. From Juneau we could utilize the day ferries, Tazlina and Hubbard, to move people and vehicles north to Skagway and Haines. From there, they could connect to the Alaska highway system for routing onto the Anchorage-Fairbanks road and waypoints.
Third, the M.V Kennicott and Tustumena should be on a schedule in western Alaska among the communities of Kodiak, Cordova, Valdez, Homer, Seward, Unalaska, etc.
With a firm schedule, and advanced advertising that entices visitors to Alaska with their automobiles, the AMHS would be in a position to resume traffic levels on our vessels approaching the record of 280,000 we established in the early 2000s. Regaining these levels of public transport would benefit not only all of Alaska but particularly the economy of Southeast Alaska, which is currently in rapid decline. It is up to us.
Frank H. Murkowski is a former Alaska governor (2002-2006) and U.S. senator (1980-2002) and a resident of Wrangell.