Governor’s ferry task force says divesting from the fleet is off the table

The Matanuska docked on Friday, February 7, 2020 at the Auke Bay ferry terminal in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Selling or giving away Alaska’s state-run ferry fleet is not a viable option. That was the conclusion the governor’s marine highway working group reached on Wednesday as it deliberated on recommendations.

The Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group’s chairman, Tom Barrett, reviewed one scenario from the Dunleavy administration’s $250,000 Northern Economics report that looked at privatization but concluded none of the routes would be profitable. He said if the state divests from the fleet, that would be the end for the marine highway.

“Because that means end the system fundamentally as we know it,” Barrett, a former Coast Guard admiral and pipelines services executive, said at Wednesday’s meeting.

The work group, which was appointed earlier this year by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, is tasked with charting the fleet’s future by finding efficiencies. It has until Sept. 30 to bring its findings forward.

That process is still underway. But on Wednesday, the nine-member group reached consensus that the ferry system is too important for the state to just walk away.

“It’s not ever going to be able to be the fleet of ‘Blue Canoes’ that existed you know 25 years ago,” Barrett said.

Earlier this month, the group held two days of public hearings when Alaskans testified about how they would right-size the fleet. It also heard from coastal communities who said ferry services are literally a lifeline.

“I don’t think I could listen to some of the people and say, ‘Yeah, well, let’s just trash it,’” Barrett said. “We’ve got some hard decisions, but that’s not one of them.”

The group is considering recommendations to reduce the fleet or routes served. It’s also looking at changes in governance and management structure that would give the marine highway more autonomy from the executive branch.

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