Alaska ferries freeze autumn ticket sales amid uncertain future

The ferry Malaspina docks in Skagway Aug. 25, 2017. The Alaska Marine Highway is being studied as part of a reform effort, which will be discussed at the Southeast Conference meeting Sept. 19-21 in Haines. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The ferry MV Malaspina docks in Skagway on Aug. 25, 2017. The future of the Alaska Marine Highway System is uncertain over cost-cutting proposals. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

The Alaska Marine Highway System has stopped selling tickets past September. That’s in response to the governor’s proposed budget that would effectively shut down service later this year.

Gov. Michael Dunleavy’s official biography describes him as arriving in Alaska in 1983 looking for opportunity. His first stop was Ketchikan, the center of Southeast Alaska’s logging industry.

Flash forward 35 years later. He was back in town as a candidate for governor and asked about his views on the ferry system.

“I mean it’s obvious, right? I came up on a ferry from Seattle. I didn’t drive; you can’t drive here,” Dunleavy told KRBD’s Leila Kheiry last April. He added he was exploring how the ferry system could be run more efficiently without cutting services.

“I don’t envision that anytime that there would not be a functional, robust ferry service in Southeast, the panhandle of Alaska,” Dunleavy said.

But his administration is proposing a $96 million cut that would effectively shut down the system.

Go online and try to book a ticket after September: It’s not happening. That’s because the marine highway’s booking system reflects the administration’s proposal.

“Right now, the main highway system is not accepting reservations past September,” state ferries spokeswoman Aurah Landau said, “and doesn’t have any vessels scheduled for October onward.”

That has people scrambling. The Southeast city of Angoon has no airport or barge service. The community’s passengers and goods come in either by a twice-weekly ferry or by floatplane.

“If the ferry gets cut Oct. 1 and we got to go through the winter without any ferry, it’s gonna be major,” Mayor Joshua Bowen said. “You know, everyone in Angoon relies on that ferry.”

Angoon is an approximately 500-resident town on the west side of Admiralty Island (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Angoon has no airport. Its approximately 400 residents rely on state ferry service for most goods. The only other option for passengers and freight is by floatplane. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

The Dunleavy administration is trying to close a $1.6 billion budget gap without raising taxes on people or industry, or reducing Alaskans’ annual permanent dividend checks.

That’s meant deep cuts now before lawmakers.

The administration proposes bringing in a consultant to look at privatization two months before the service shuts down. That’s been met with some skepticism.

“Why the rush?” asked Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, during a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. “Why are we just cutting several tens of millions of dollars in one year versus over a course of a couple years, particularly to allow this consultant to finish his or her work? Why are we just, you know, ‘game over’ as of the end of October?”

At the hearing, Amanda Holland of the state’s Office of Management and Budget pointed to declining revenue from passengers. Fewer people ride the ferry, and that means less income, she said.

But other Republican lawmakers expressed concern about humanitarian effects of ceasing service so abruptly.

“If you shut down the ferry operations, you are potentially — I hate to say it — but you’re potentially strangling those communities,” Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, told administration budget officials. “Because they may not make it through the winter without that, if the airports can’t support them. And my guess is they can’t.”

Separately, there’s been an ongoing effort to reform the state’s Marine Highway System as a public corporation. But even that alternative would still require sustained support from the Legislature to operate the fleet.

Watch the latest legislative coverage from Gavel Alaska:

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