The ferry Taku loads up at the Prince Rupert, B.C., ferry terminal July 24, 2014. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The ferry Taku loads up at the Prince Rupert, British Columbia, ferry terminal July 24, 2014. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Alaska’s cash-strapped ferry system may soon pay the wages of Canadian police in order to maintain its connection to British Columbia.

The arrangement is in response to a demand by U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the presence of armed law enforcement while agents conduct inspections at the Prince Rupert ferry terminal.

Passengers and vehicles boarding Alaska ferries in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, are routinely checked by U.S. agents. They call it “preclearance.” And it’s so passengers won’t have to flash IDs in Ketchikan or wherever they get off the ferry.

But those CPB agents checking passports and looking for contraband in Canada are unarmed.

It’s a sovereign nation, and we don’t have that authority,” said Jerry McGee, the federal agency’s assistant area port director in Anchorage.

McGee noted that hunting rifles and shotguns are legal in both countries, and they’re often in the possession of the traveling public.

“Therefore, theoretically our staff would be the only ones that are not armed,” McGee said.

It’s been like that for decades. But federal officials apparently aren’t comfortable with the status quo.

The Alaska Marine Highway System was put on notice on March 15: Either ensure that there’s a “continuous law enforcement presence” during inspections, or shut down the port in 30 days.

The ferry system’s General Manager John Falvey said the feds were clear.

“You gotta have, you know, armed protection for our officers,” Falvey said he was told. “So I went to work pretty quickly and determined that that was going to be very difficult to do. And the (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities) Commissioner (John MacKinnon) went back and requested an extension, and we got it.”

That bought the state six months, with an Oct. 1 deadline.

Prince Rupert has no police force of its own. The city of 12,000 people relies on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada’s federal law enforcement agency.

“And you know, they’re at max capacity as I understand it right now,” said Paul Vendittelli, manager of transportation and economic development for the city of Prince Rupert.

Vendittelli said losing the Alaska ferry would be a blow to Prince Rupert, with estimates the ferry service brings in about $2 million to its local economy.

“We have about 14,000 passengers that use the Alaska Marine Highway,” Vendittelli said. “It’s a very big deal for us and a service that we don’t want to lose.”

So far, the solution being floated is for the state of Alaska to contract RCMP officers to stand by as armed backup while U.S. agents work.

I’ll have to pay them for their services,” Falvey said. “They just don’t come in and do it for free.”

How the state ferries would afford this isn’t clear. The state Legislature is finalizing a budget that already projects deep cuts, including to AMHS.

By contrast, the CPB budget commands over $20 billion annually and could be expanding. Will the feds pick up the check?

“They never offered,” Falvey said. “You’d think they would have offered maybe, but no.”

Alaska transportation officials plan to write up a contract this summer. Falvey said the details haven’t been finalized.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a large sum of money,” Falvey said. “I mean, we look at something like this as the cost of doing business.”

An agreement allowing U.S. agents to carry sidearms at Prince Rupert is in the works. But officials on both sides of the border say that’s still several years away.

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