By Frank Murkowski
We’re all happy to have the administration’s winter schedule for the Southeast ferry system. However, there are a few downsides. The first is the exception noted on the MV Columbia’s schedule, which leaves several communities without service in November and December.
It’s clear that the Alaska Marine Highway System has had a difficult time weathering the storms of the pandemic, which resulted in substantial decline in revenue as well as adequate crew availability. It’s unfortunate that the ferry system does not have an operational vessel in reserve to fully service the needs of Southeast communities.
Also noticeably absent was any information on the disposition of the recently laid-up Matanuska. She is tied up in Ketchikan pending repairs for deterioration of steel plating, etc. Why is the vessel not scheduled to go into a shipyard for an up-to-date marine survey to evaluate the cost of bringing it up to Coast Guard and safety certification standards, including requirements for travel to foreign ports? It would appear that the state has significant funds available — thanks to our federal delegation infrastructure funding — to make major repairs as necessary.
This should be addressed during the current winter months to allow for operation in the spring/summer of next year, specifically for the Prince Rupert run. It’s far more practical to extend the life of existing ships for a few more years, rather than let them sit idle while we wait to build new vessels in the neighborhood of hundreds of millions of dollars. We just can’t sit in a vacuum for three or four years while new vessels are designed and built. We should start now with the Matanuska for the Prince Rupert run.
In the last few years, the state Department of Transportation appears to have lost enthusiasm for the Prince Rupert run. This once thriving route connected Alaskans to the Lower 48, bringing tourism and trade, but regular service ended in 2019. The Matanuska, with the necessary repairs, could restore the twice-weekly runs from Prince Rupert up through Southeast Alaska. This service would be a major contribution to the Southeast communities which lack any highway connection and must rely on the ferries for passenger and vehicle transportation. When I was governor, the ferry system in Southeast enjoyed a traffic flow of 372,000 passengers in 2006. Today, that average is less than 100,000.
The ferry system has never had an aggressive promotional campaign reaching out to visitors who are used to traveling with their cars and campers. The ferry system provides that opportunity for them, but it must be promoted. While we have the Bellingham alternative, many Alaskans would prefer driving a less expensive route up through Canada on the Prince Rupert highway, which has proven to be an excellent travel route.
I hope that this suggestion of refurbishing the Matanuska to adequate marine standards would be initiated by the current administration as soon as possible. I also hope that the Southeast Conference would support the effort to open the Prince Rupert gateway again.
All Alaskans must be cognizant that the ferry system must continue to meet the transportation needs of the residents of Southeast Alaska, just as our neighbors in the Interior enjoy their highway system. Roads don’t generate direct revenue, but they pay off in commerce, trade and access. The same is true of our marine highway system.
There’s been a good deal of concern over issues involving the ferry system, including adequate funding, availability of qualified crew and enough vessels available to meet the needs of the Southeast communities. These issues are solvable. The Alaska Marine Highway System is the beneficiary of substantial infrastructure funding from the federal government. The governor’s advisory group has suggested providing emergency funding to attract the necessary crews. The Prince Rupert run could be an infusion into the economy of the affected Southeast communities and residents, which are now experiencing a slight population decline. Southeast Alaska wants and needs to reestablish the service to Prince Rupert, and now is the time to start.
Frank Murkowski is a former governor of Alaska.