‘It’s better than nothing:’ Another year of reduced ferry service in Aleutians

Prior to 2020, AMHS had been calling on Unalaska twice monthly May-September, with an occasional early October call. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

Ports along the Aleutian Chain between Homer and Unalaska will see only five visits of the ferry Tustumena this summer, down from the twice-monthly service that was the norm through 2019.

On Wednesday, the Alaska Marine Highway System released its summer schedule, which covers state ferry travel from May through September.

The M/V Tustumena is scheduled to sail only once per month, or a total of five times, along the Aleutian route.

This lighter schedule is on par with last year’s calls to Unalaska, according to Ports Director Peggy McLaughlin. Prior to 2020, AMHS had been calling on the island twice monthly from May-September, with an occasional early October call.

“The reduced schedule is better than nothing, but will not meet the historic demands of the AMHS users,” McLaughlin said. “The AMHS truly operates as a highway for the Aleutians and provides communities up and down the Chain affordable means for travel, for relocating professionals and families — teachers, medical workers, construction workers — and operates as a means to ship vehicles, household goods, and construction equipment.”

Attempts to eliminate the Aleutians from the AMHS route have been ongoing for about two years, according to McLaughlin. Those efforts included eliminating the replacement vessel for the aging Tustumena, which would effectively reduce the ocean-class vessels in the AMHS fleet to one, she said.

Early drafts of the state budget completely eliminated the Aleutian route. But municipal advocacy organizations like the Alaska Municipal League (AML) and Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference (SWAMC) have been strong supporters for continued AMHS service.

Local entities like the Unalaska Visitors Bureau and the Department of Port and Harbors, along with local residents, called in to testify on the need for service along the Aleutian route during the Alaska Department of Transportation’s public hearings in September, after which the department published a proposed schedule with once-monthly service.

“The community and the city will need to continue to advocate for this and any desired increased service,” McLaughlin said. “With the elimination of the replacement vessel, the Chain will likely lose service once the 57-year-old Tustumena has aged out.”

Information on fare and sailing schedules is available at FerryAlaska.com.

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