Ferry plan calls for smaller ships, public management

Crew members wrap up a safety drill on the deck of the ferry Malaspina during a sailing from Juneau to Haines Sept. 18, 2017. The ferry system faces changes to its fleet as part of a larger reform plan. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Crew members wrap up a safety drill on the deck of the ferry Malaspina during a sailing from Juneau to Haines on Sept. 18. The ferry system faces changes to its fleet as part of a larger reform plan. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

A plan to reform the Alaska Marine Highway System calls for replacing some ferries with smaller, more efficient vessels. Backers want it to be run by an independent corporation and negotiate its own labor contracts.

Many Alaska Marine Highway ferries are showing signs of age. Fares are rising and sailings have become less frequent. Most importantly, funding is dropping, pointing to what could be dark times ahead.

“We can continue to admire the problem, and the resulting report, like has happened so many times in the past. Or, we can do something,” said Marc Luiken, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, which includes the ferry system.

And the report he’s talking about? It’s a near-final draft of a plan to change how the marine highway is managed, and in some cases, operated.

“I strongly suggest crafting legislation necessary to move this effort forward and create a public corporation that will take over governance of the system,” he said at the Southeast Conference annual meeting Sept. 20 in Haines.

The report was produced by consultants for a statewide committee planning for the ferry system’s future. It’s a cooperative effort involving government and the Southeast Conference. The regional development organization formed in the 1950s to lobby for the ferry system’s creation.

The new corporation would continue to receive state and federal funds. But backers say it would provide a buffer between the ferry system and shifting political priorities.

Jim Calvin of the McDowelll Group speaks as part of a panel on reforming the Alaska Marine Highway System Sept. 19, 2017, in Haines. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Jim Calvin of the McDowelll Group speaks as part of a panel on reforming the Alaska Marine Highway System Sept. 19, 2017, in Haines. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

“It’s not a complete divorce from state government,” said Susan Bell, a former state commerce commissioner who is with the McDowell Group, which contributed to the report.

“There’s a lot of ways that the public has accountability. There’s a lot of ways that other agencies, like departments of transportation, law and administration, can continue to support it,” she said during a panel discussion and presentation at the Southeast Conference meeting.

The corporation would have its own staff, overseen by a seven-member board appointed by the governor. It’s modeled, in part, on the Alaska Railroad Corp.

Former Transportation Commissioner Mark Hickey was part of the effort to create that corporation in the mid-1980s.

“If I were in charge of the world, I would do a bill where I’m as far away from all the rest of state government as I possibly can be. Have your own lawyers, do your own labor negotiations. You can’t do that completely; you’re going to be tied. But generally, push to have freedom and autonomy,” he said.

Another major change is how and when the system would be funded.

Jim Calvin is senior economic analyst for the McDowell Group.

“The reason that you want this sort of advanced planning opportunity, the forward funding that can support this advance planning, is so people can plan accordingly. Particularly businesses that need long lead times to plan their business operations around the service that the marine highway can provide,” he said.

The state Legislature would have to agree for the plan to work. That’s been a difficult battle for the education budget, which has had much broader support.

An onboard diagram illustrates what's on the ferry Matanuska's Bridge Deck on Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

An onboard diagram illustrates what’s on the ferry Matanuska’s bridge deck on Sept. 20. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

“Forward funding at a year in advance, in this budgetary climate? I think it’s a bridge too far,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, a Sitka Republican.

He said the whole reform plan could leave the system open to deeper budget cuts.

He called forward funding “a novel idea.” But he pointed to a recently identified budget switch that could leave the ferries without operational funds this spring.

“I think you’re on the wrong track. I think the forward funding issue should be to try to get it funded through June of this year,” he said.

Rep. Sam Kito III, a Juneau Democrat, had a different take. He said he’ll introduce legislation to forward fund the system.

A third significant operational change is labor relations.

Bell said the corporation would take over contract negotiations. That would allow it to change work rules, which could reduce staff and bring operational savings.

“We think that the system would benefit from a more direct relationship between marine highway governance and the unions. We believe not only the change to the corporate structure, but direct negotiations will enhance that,” she said.

The report said wages and benefits make up about 60 percent of the ferry system’s costs. It recommends moving toward smaller and simpler ships, with fewer staff.

“We’re not going to be helping the workforce,” said Capt. Joan Sizemore, a marine pilot working in Southeast Alaska and a former ferry employee. “It seems to be that the impetus right now is to cut costs by removing people. And if you have fewer people working on those ferries, that’s fewer dollars spent in Alaska.”

The ferry reform plan calls for the fleet to remain at nine ships, the current number of active vessels.

But two large ferries, the Columbia and the Kennicott, would be gone. The same could happen to the fast ferries.

Capt. John Reeves of the Elliott Bay Design Group said several ships could be phased out and replaced.

“Some of the shorter routes, you don’t necessarily need to have a crew on board 24/7 because the vessel is just making shorter runs. So we can have a different vessel (that) has a smaller crew, it’s cheaper to operate, but still provides the same service to the communities,” he said.

The ferry reform report also includes what it calls a minimal service model.

That would reduce the fleet from nine to seven ships and the annual weeks of service by about 20 percent.

The committee overseeing the ferry reform project is gathering public comments through Oct. 6.

More information is available at Alaska Marine Highway Reform Project website.

Recent headlines

  • The male seal receives 24-hour care at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. He was found sick on an Unalaska beach earlier this month. (Photo courtesy Alaska Sealife Center)

    Third ringed seal found in Unalaska sent for rehabilitation

    After admitting a sick ringed seal from Unalaska, veterinarians at the Alaska SeaLife Center are cautiously optimistic about his chances for recovery.
  • Around 3,000 gallons of oil were released into the Shuyak Strait after this building collapsed. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

    Response to the oil spill in the Shuyak Strait continues

    At the end of February, 3,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Shuyak Strait about 50 miles north of the City of Kodiak. The oil was in a building that collapsed because of a severe windstorm. Since then, a response has been underway to contain the oil, clean it up, and prevent future spills.
  • Mentoring program to close in Haines, Homer, Hoonah, Sitka

    Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska will no longer make new matches between youths and volunteers in four Alaska communities: Haines, Homer, Hoonah, and Sitka. The organization that matches volunteers and youth for one-on-one mentoring, says it’s a matter of reduced federal and state grant funding.
  • Travis Finkenbinder, pictured here on March 14, 2018, is permanently minimally conscious. A coworker struck him in the head with his float plane's ski in 2014.

    No jail time for float plane pilot after buzzing gone wrong

    The pilot won't serve jail time, but must pay the state $25,000 and the family $6,100 in restitution. The judge expressed doubt that it would send the aviation community much of a message.