Marine highway communities say: Along with passengers, the future rides on the ferry

The Aurora, a 235-foot Alaska state ferry, approaches the dock in Whittier, its departure point for its trip across Prince William Sound to Cordova. (Photo by Nat Herz/Alaska's Energy Desk)
The Aurora, a 235-foot Alaska state ferry, approaches the dock in Whittier, its departure point for its trip across Prince William Sound to Cordova. (Photo by Nat Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Alaska Marine Highway System is at a critical crossroads, as the first round of hearings on restructuring the ferry system began this week.

A nine-member working group is reviewing a $250,000 study commissioned by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, one that has already ruled out privatizing the state ferry fleet because it doesn’t pencil out.

Now they will hear what the public has to say about the future of the ferry system. They are taking testimony on September 2.

These hearings come as many coastal communities brace for long gaps in service. The Department of Transportation proposed deep cuts to its winter ferry schedule, which the working group will not address in its current series of hearings.

Department of Transportation officials said the cuts are necessary to keep the ferry system afloat, after COVID-19 hit ridership hard and caused huge losses.

During a 5-day comment period on the proposed schedule earlier this month, more than 200 people weighed in on how the reduced service will hurt them, including those who depend on the aging Tustumena, one of two certified ocean class ferries in the fleet.

The Tustumena rides the waves from Homer to Seldovia, and from Kodiak out to the Aleutian chain, where she’s known as the “Trusty Tusty.” But between mechanical problems and COVID-19, which infected the crew and kept the ferry out of service for about a month, it has been a challenge to live up to that name.

When the Tustumena resumed service to Kodiak in July, her loud bellow to clear the channel was a welcome sound, a sign that life was on its way back to normal – that passengers, cars, groceries and other goods were on the move again. But now, with the proposed cutbacks, some communities could lose service entirely.

John Mayer, one of two captains who pilots the Tustumena, understands what it means to the communities on the route. He compares it to ordering dinner in a restaurant and all you can afford is a bowl of soup.

“And who gets the soup?” he said. “We’re all getting a bowl of soup with five spoons in it. All these communities need something.”

Here’s more from Capt. John Mayer’s interview:

But in the proposed winter schedule, there are no spoons for Ouzinkie or Port Lions, no longer on the route to Kodiak, which will see some service through the winter from the Kennicott.

The mayor of Port Lions, Dorinda Kewan, said her community has no store – and its airport runway is small, too small for airplanes big enough for cargo like lumber and other big-ticket items.

“We’re back in the same boat as we were last year, with no Tustumena service, starting October 1,” Kewan said. “And no real guess at when it’ll come back because the maintenance always takes much longer than originally estimated on the Tustumena.”

Kewan has been working with the Marine Highway’s ferry scheduler in hopes to make a change in the proposed winter schedule – to allow the Kennicott to make some stops in Port Lions. Kewan said it’s frustrating to know that the Kennicott, when it makes stops at nearby Kodiak, will bypass Port Lions – after the community used state money in 2014 to build a new ferry dock to accommodate the Kennicott.

Port Lions in 2004. (Photo Credit: Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development; Division of Community and Regional Affairs’ Community Photo Library.)
Port Lions in 2004. (Photo Credit: Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development; Division of Community and Regional Affairs’ Community Photo Library.)

Kewan said Port Lions’ elders will suffer the most without ferry service because they use it to get to medical appointments in Kodiak.

She said the ferry system has allowed elders to continue to live in Port Lions as long as possible. And if the elders have to move for care, so will their families.

“Yet flying is difficult for elders to get in and out of planes – and our bad weather means the ferry is the first choice for getting to their appointments,” Kewan said.

Kewan is upset that the public was given less than a week to weigh in on the winter schedule. And so is Representative Louise Stutes, a Kodiak Republican.

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, participates in a House Majority press availability in the Alaska State Capitol on April 3, 2018. The conversation centered on House Bill 286, the state operating budget passed by the House or Representatives the day before. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

“Give me a break, you know. Come on. Obviously, they’re not too concerned with public comment,” Stutes said.

John MacKinnon, the commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said the main reason for the 5-day comment period was to get the winter schedule set as soon as possible, to give people time to make travel plans.

He said cutbacks to the winter schedule are unavoidable, because passenger revenues are only 40% of normal, due to COVID-19 and mechanical breakdowns.

MacKinnon said he’s hopeful that the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group can come up with some long-term solutions.

When Gov. Dunleavy first took office, he made drastic budget cuts and moved money set aside for the Tustumena’s replacement process to the state’s federal highway matching program. The legislature restored some of those funds and Dunleavy created the working group.

Stutes, who is part of the group, said the key to its success is to get the ferry system out of competition with the road system for its funding. Though she believes the Marine Highway deserves a fair share of state transportation funds.

“We don’t have to pave our road,” Stutes said. “We don’t have to fill potholes on our roads. What do you think the cost was to build the road between Fairbanks and Anchorage?”

Stutes would like to see the ferry system forward-funded for five years.

Here’s more from Rep. Louise Stutes’ interview:

Another ferry advocate, Shirley Marquardt, said a dependable source of revenue is critical in making sound decisions for the ferries. She heads up an economic development group called the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference.  She was Marine Highway’s top administrator until the Dunleavy administration eliminated her job in a budget cut.

Marquardt hopes the legislature will get behind the efforts of the ferry reshaping work group.

“I’m worried without that kind of push from the legislature, that we won’t see this,” said Marquardt, who said many Alaskans on the road system, think the answer is simply to starve the ferry system and let it die.

Marquardt said it’s easy for those who don’t understand the importance of ferries to coastal communities to said, “People will be unhappy for a little bit, but they’ll get over it,” she said. “You don’t get over not being able to move back and forth between your communities.”

Marquardt believes the answer may be to set up an entity similar to the Alaska Railroad. It would be removed from the annual politically-charged funding battles, where support for the system varies from administration to administration, as well as an understanding of how the ferry system works and why it’s important.

Marquardt recently boarded the Tustumena on a trip from Kodiak to Unalaska, a nearly three-day journey, which passes by Chignik, Cold Bay, False Pass, Sand Point, King Cove, Akutan, and Unalaska.

“The scenery along the way, the volcanoes, the bays, the whales,” Marquardt said, “It’s just what 99.9 percent of the population on this planet will never see.”

Here’s more from Shirley Marquardt’s interview:

Captain John Mayers has steered the Tustumena across the Aleutian chain for many, many years. He said it’s a route that requires a specialized crew. He worries about the impact of the winter schedule cuts on crew members, who will be out of work from October to April.

“The crew right now is very nervous about where they’re going to find work,” Mayer said. “You can’t feed your family on no work, so they’re going to find other jobs.”

Without an experienced crew, Mayer worries the system could become even more unreliable — and those fighting for the ferry system, like Dorinda Kewan, say it’s doomed to fail without dependable service.

“So if you don’t have people using the ferry, then that’s going to give the governor even more fuel to say, ‘Well, they don’t need it. They don’t want it. They’re not using it,’” Kewan said. “It’s a lose-lose proposition.”

Kewan worries that the work of the ferry reshaping group won’t come in time to save the system – that not only passengers ride on the ferry, but also the future of many communities who depend on the Marine Highway.

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