Alaska Marine Highway System supporters rally across the state

More than 200 people rallied in support of the ferry system in front of the state Capitol on Tuesday in Juneau. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Hundreds of people rallied around the state Tuesday to restore the Alaska Marine Highway System’s regional ferry service.

The fleet has been largely idle since the only mainliner in service broke down last month.

In Juneau, elected state and tribal leaders told 200 people gathered around the Capitol steps that for smaller coastal communities, regular ferry connections are a matter of survival.

People who kind of have no idea, who come from a place of privilege, say, ‘Well, that’s your choice (to live in coastal communities).’ Well, they don’t know what it’s like to be born in a community and to be able to say for 10,000 years, ‘My forefathers were born in this area,’” said Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “We have no reason that we need to move.”

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, told the lunchtime crowd that Alaska villages deserve a higher standard of living.

“The store shelves shouldn’t be empty in Alaska communities,” Kiehl said. “They shouldn’t be empty when we’ve got docks, and we’ve got vessels, and we’ve got skilled people to run ’em!”

Kobe Nall and Keely Nall hold up a sign and a homemade model of a state ferry at Ketchikan’s rally on Tuesday. They say they often take state ferries to visit family and friends in Petersburg and Juneau. (Photo by Eric Stone/KRBD)

In Ketchikan, about 60 people turned out. Some of them were state ferry workers left high-and-dry by the shutdown.

Wade McClennan worked on the Columbia, which has been tied up since last fall. In the meantime, he’s not drawing a paycheck.

There’s a lot of uncertainties, because we depend on our benefits,” he told KRBD. “And when you’re the breadwinner of your family, the uncertainty (like) there is right now just causes a lot of anxiety.”

Meanwhile in Kodiak, about 10 people gathered near that city’s ferry dock. Many were retirees who came by ferry decades ago.

Robyn Cassidy is a retired bookkeeper who first stepped off the ferry when she was 13.

“This is infrastructure. This isn’t something special,” she told KMXT. “We don’t have any other highway, and it needs to be funded in full and quickly.”

Archie Dunbar, left, and Luck Dunbar pose with their signs at the Haines rally on Tuesday. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

In downtown Haines, more than 200 people gathered to show their support for the system.

Luck Dunbar and his son Archie held a sign with a hand-drawn portrait of President Donald Trump in his characteristic red baseball cap. They had a new take on Trump’s campaign slogan.

“We’re just trying to get through to the people that kind of run the show, you know?” the elder Dunbar told KHNS. “It’s kind of something off the MAGA hat, but it says ‘Make Our Ferries Great Again.’ MOFGA!”

Throngs of ferry supporters turned out in the fishing town of Petersburg on Tuesday. (Photo by Orin Pierson/KFSK)

Out in the Aleutian Islands, there are just four ferry trips scheduled for the entire year.

Jeff Hancock is with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and helped organize the rally that brought out about 40 people. He said it takes a half a week to travel by ferry from the road system to Unalaska.

“But we have people, including myself, who have been stuck in Anchorage for multiple weeks waiting for flights … and it becomes a realistic option to think about getting on a three-and-a-half day ferry trip if you know you’re going to be able to get home,” Hancock told KUCB.

Limited regional ferry service is scheduled to resume next month. But under a draft summer schedule released last month, some coastal communities could go without any service through the end of the year.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has requested $12 million for supplemental ferry funding. But state transportation officials told lawmakers this month that the money is needed for the existing bare bones schedule and would not expand service.

Reporting for this story was contributed by KRBD’s Eric Stone in Ketchikan; KMXT’s Kavitha George in Kodiak; KHNS’s Claire Stremple in Haines; and KUCB’s Hope McKenney in Unalaska.

Jacob Resneck, CoastAlaska

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director based in Juneau. CoastAlaska is our partner in Southeast Alaska. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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