Ferry sailings down 7 percent next fiscal year

The ferries Matanuska, right, and Fairweather, left, tie up at Juneau's Auke Bay Ferry Terminal May 19. 2016. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
The ferries Matanuska, right, and Fairweather, left, tie up at Juneau’s Auke Bay Ferry Terminal May 19, 2016. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Next winter’s ferry schedule will be leaner than this year’s, and that one was pretty lean. It’s the result of budget cuts, which could lead to the sale of the ferry Taku.

A couple of numbers tell the story of the next budget year’s ferry schedule.

The first is 356. That’s the number of weeks ships are sailing during this fiscal year, which ends in June. The second is 330, the number of weeks of sailings for the next budget year, which begins in July. That adds up to a reduction of around 7 percent.

“What happened this legislative session, I don’t like at all,” said Sen. Dennis Egan, who represents Juneau, Haines and Skagway.

“I think it’s decimated the Marine Highway System and the problem is a lot of people don’t understand that it’s a highway. Sure it costs money to run, but we pay for a lot of it.”

This next year’s total budget, in its latest version, is almost 10 percent lower that this year’s spending plan. And some of the money will come out of an account that’s being spent down quickly.

Ferry spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said cuts will be most visible later this year.

“It is not the department’s intention to change any of the summer schedule. Any changes will be reflected in the winter schedule or next spring and the beginning part of summer, 2017.”

In all, five of the state’s 11 ferries will tie up for much of the fall-winter-spring schedule. That includes both fast ferries, the Kennicott and the Columbia.

The other tied-up ferry is the Taku, which hasn’t sailed since last July.

Passengers enjoy the scenery during a Sept. 3 fast ferry Chenega sailing between Sitka and Juneau. Sitka would lose most of its ferry stops under a schedule based on a reduced budget proposed by Gov. Bill Walker.
Passengers enjoy the scenery during a Sept. 3, 2015, fast ferry Chenega sailing between Sitka and Juneau. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Woodrow said officials are researching what needs to be done to sell it off. And that’s not restricted to outside buyers.

“There has been a lot of discussion of … communities creating their own ferry authorities to improve ferry service. So, those are some of the discussions that are being had (about) what to do with the Taku,” he said.

The ferry system estimates it spends about $3 million a year to lay up the ship. That covers a skeleton crew, insurance and a fuel for the generators. So selling it off would reduce operating costs. There are other factors, such as the ship’s age and condition.

Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz, who also represents Wrangell, said he’s concerned about the loss of a ship that’s served Southeast for years.

“It’s been a mainstay. And while it would require some refurbishment and some significant (money) to do that, I want to make sure that in the long run, it wouldn’t be more cost-effective to do that refurbishment rather than to build another ferry or something like that,” he said.

The last ferry to be sold off was the Bartlett, which went up on eBay in 2013.

Ferry officials are taking written comments on the fall-winter-spring schedule until June 21 via fax at 907-228-6874 or by email at dot.amhs.comments@alaska.gov.

A public teleconference to hear additional comments and consider adjustments is scheduled for June 22 at 10 a.m. for Southeast schedules and at 1 p.m. for Southwest and Southcentral schedules.

The meeting will be held in Ketchikan at the Alaska Marine Highway Central Office, 7559 North Tongass Highway. The toll-free number is 1-800-315-6338, conference code 03902#.

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