Pelican and Tenakee Springs residents saw their ferry fears come true last week in the form of the state’s proposed summer ferry schedule — a schedule that calls for zero summer sailings to the two remote island communities.
The towns’ mayors, already grappling with the current lack of ferries, expressed shock and dismay at the proposed schedule.
Tenakee Springs hasn’t seen a ferry in months. And, as Mayor Dan Kennedy found out when he looked at the proposed summer schedule, that drought is unlikely to end anytime soon.
“It was stunning,” Kennedy said. “I mean, they just left us hanging in the wind for a year or more, more than a year.”
The Alaska Marine Highway System was already in rough waters before the state released the draft schedule. Last year, the Legislature and Gov. Mike Dunleavy cut funding to the system. Since then, repairs have kept vessels out of service for longer than anticipated, further hampering service.
It’s not just the schedule that is working against Tenakee Springs. The city’s dock is due for a replacement, and work is supposed to start in early July. Kennedy hoped they would get a sailing or two early in the summer to help tide things over until the dock is finished in December.
But if the draft schedule becomes the final word, Tenakee would be looking at another full year without ferries.
“Well I’m just outraged, you know,” Kennedy said. “I think the state probably has enough contingency funds somewhere to do something, whether it’s hire a private vessel, or — that’s about the only alternative I see at this point.”
As it stands, the town is already suffering after being essentially stranded for months. The shelves are bare at the store. Residents have struggled to make medical appointments. All the local businesses have taken a hit.
Kennedy said it’s just too much to bear for many people in his city.
“A lot of people have just left. I mean, I’ve never seen so few people in town. I mean, it’s always less in the winter, but I bet we’re around 50, and I’ve never seen it that low,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy and others are doing what they can to advocate for the interests of Tenakee Springs, but he’s not overly optimistic about the sway they hold in Juneau.
“We’re just gonna try and keep pressure on the governor,” he said. “I mean, we don’t have a lot of clout, obviously. Fifty people in the middle of nowhere right now, and hopefully we can embarrass him into doing something.”
Forty miles away, on the other side of Chichagof Island, the city of Pelican is also confronting the possibility of a summer without ferries.
Unlike Tenakee, though, Pelican’s ferry dock is in good shape. Mayor Walt Weller said it’s just not seeing a lot of use these days.
“We’ve got a really nice, multi-million-dollar AMHS terminal,” Weller said. “It doesn’t have a building or anything, but just the docking structure is pretty nice. It’s only about 10 years old. It’s just sitting there. I’m looking at it out my window. It’s just sitting there, looking wet and lonely and cold.”
Pelican, like Tenakee, hasn’t had a ferry in months. Neither community has an airstrip, and winter weather makes floatplane travel unreliable at best.
Weller echoed many of Tenakee Springs’ economic and logistical concerns. He’s particularly worried about how to get trucks in to pump out the city’s sewer system. Another big question is how the town’s seafood processor would fare without a ferry to take its product to market.
Beyond the day-to-day challenges, Weller said the breakdown of the state ferry system has unfairly jeopardized island communities, overlooking the value that places like Pelican provide to the state as a whole.
“For our size, (Pelican is) a major contributor to what Alaska’s all about,” he said. “Which is sport fishing, and tourism, and the world’s best seafood. And it’s like, ‘Well never mind, you guys are on your own.’”
Weller, Kennedy and other mayors and stakeholders throughout the region are scrambling to get some service restored where possible. Weller said Pelican could get by with just eight to 10 sailings a year.
“Having some form of economical transportation in line with what the Alaska Marine Highway System was originally mandated for, which was commerce and supporting these small communities, that’s all we’re asking for,” he said. “We don’t have any reason to ask for a ferry every week or even every month. We just don’t want to be cut completely off.”
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is gathering public comments on the proposed schedule now until Feb. 3. They will also hold a teleconference on Feb. 4 to hear additional comments.