Skagway looks into developing a local ferry authority

An Alaska Marine Highway ferry docked in Skagway. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

An Alaska Marine Highway System ferry docked in Skagway. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

As the Alaska Marine Highway System faces deep budget cuts, a committee in Skagway has been examining the potential to create a locally-governed ferry service for the Upper Lynn Canal.

Recently, the committee reached out to a research firm to explore the idea further.

Skagway resident Jan Wrentmore chairs the municipality’s Marine Highway Ad Hoc Committee. She said that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget cuts could leave Skagway without ferry service. Under the governor’s plan, ferry service would end on Oct. 1.

“People all across the state and particularly in our region were very upset about that,” Wrentmore said.

This got her wondering about the alternatives available to Skagway if AMHS shuts down.

“So there was a lot of talk locally, and also I believe in Haines, about what it would mean to form our own ferry authority,” Wrentmore said.

So Skagway’s Marine Highway Ad Hoc Committee reached out to the McDowell Group, a research firm with experience consulting for AMHS. Wrentmore said the idea was to create a report explaining what it would take to create a locally-governed ferry authority.

“If we had to make a decision about trying to save the marine highway in Lynn Canal, then we would have a tool. We would have a document that kind of laid out for us what the various steps would be,” Wrentmore said.

In its proposal for the study, the firm said it will consider local governance models that could serve a Skagway-centered ferry service.

The proposal points to the Inter-Island Ferry Authority, or the IFA, as an example. The public, nonprofit corporation provides ferry service between Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan.

It isn’t a perfect example. The IFA receives funding from the state, and it relies on AMHS for some of its customer base.

But it is a model for local governance. It has a board of directors with representatives from the six communities that it serves.

Wrentmore said she imagines if an independent ferry authority were established for the Upper Lynn Canal, Haines and Skagway would be partners.

“I can’t imagine any way that it could work if Haines and Skagway weren’t in some way partnering on this project,” Wrentmore said. “But right now it is just kind of an open general discussion of the legislative process to get there.”

The McDowell study would also examine potential funding sources, costs, public/private partnerships and staffing options.

The firm is asking for $33,000 to carry out the research. It requires about 90 days to conduct the analysis and prepare a report.

The municipality has not indicated one way or another whether it would consider developing a local ferry authority. The Skagway Borough Assembly will discuss whether or not to fund the study at its meeting Thursday evening.

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