Deeper Alaska ferry cuts planned by state House panel

The ferry Malaspina sails out of Juneau's Auke Bay terminal in 2012. Its stack has since been painted yellow in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News.
The ferry Malaspina waits to sail out of Juneau’s Auke Bay terminal in 2012. It will be tied up in July and August under a budget plan that moved out of a House Finance Committee panel on Thursday. (Ed Schoenfeld/ CoastAlaska News)

Alaska’s ferry system is facing even more service cuts.

A House panel on Thursday yanked money from the marine highway budget that the governor had restored. And, it made additional cuts.

Transportation Department Deputy Commissioner Capt. Mike Neussl says if they stick, the cuts will reduce service about 20 percent, from 394 to 322 weeks of ferry sailings, during the next fiscal year.

“It looks like $10 million on paper. But they found and moved into our budget an additional $2 million. So … we’re taking $8 million worth of service cuts,” Neussl says.

The House Finance Committee’s subcommittee on the Transportation Department made the reductions.

“This would be the lowest annual operation schedule with the current 11-ship fleet … since 2004,” Neussl says.

Juneau Democratic Rep. Sam Kito III says that means limited service in the summer, minimal service in the winter and no fill-in ferries.

“So, if a vessel has a mechanical problem, those passengers won’t travel because we won’t have a vessel to back them up,” he says.

The Kennicott, Taku and Malaspina ferries will see significant cutbacks. The fast ferry Fairweather will only sail Southeast four days a week, when it’s running at all.

The fast ferry Chenega will be tied up all year, leaving only the Aurora serving Prince William Sound. And Kodiak could go about six weeks without a sailing.

Kito and Ketchikan Independent Rep. Dan Ortiz were the only Finance Committee transportation panel members to oppose the cuts.

The budget’s next stop is the full House Finance Committee.

Juneau Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz sits on that panel. She says lawmakers representing port communities will try to restore some of the funding.

“Just today we were talking about working as a Southeast delegation, getting all the … coastal legislators together to meet with the governor and to meet with the leadership in the House to try to restore some of those cuts because those will be very, very difficult if they were to hold,” she says.

Neussl says it’ll take staff a while to figure out all the impacts. Reservations staff will inform booked travelers of schedule changes once they’re firm.

But they won’t be warning passengers until the Legislature completes its budget, which could take a month or more.

Gov. Bill Walker recently rescinded his proposed ferry system budget cuts, saying the state shouldn’t cancel sailings already booked.

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