Alaska Marine Highway System faces challenge-filled summer season

 MV Kennicott (KTUU)
MV Kennicott (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Feb. 9, 2021 at 6:48 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When the Alaska Department of Transportation released its draft schedule for the Alaska Marine Highway System’s 2021 summer season, residents of the community of Kake were quick to ask questions. Their village had been left off of some of the relevant documents, leaving many to believe they would not see a single ferry for a matter of months.

Since then, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has clarified that Kake will see ferries in 2021. The state says there was a misunderstanding, resulting from an oversight in which the community was not listed in a graph detailing the upcoming route plans.

“It was never the intention to leave Kake off,” said DOT&PF spokesperson Andy Mills.

According to Mills, Kake will see a ferry stop at its terminal twice each month. Once on a northbound route, and once when that ferry returns on its southbound path.

While the news was a relief to residents, it is still far from the service that Kake once saw. Tribal President Joel Jackson told Alaska’s News Source that Kake once saw two ferries in a single week. His community relies on the service for access to medical treatments and for supply runs to cities like Juneau and Sitka.

“There’s no roads in and out of our communities. The only way in and out is to fly or take the ferry, It’s like taking highways away up in the interior and saying: ‘No, you can’t travel on it anymore,’” Jackson said.

The current list of stops is far from set in stone, with changes remaining possible as lawmakers hold talks regarding the state’s operating budget. The DOT&PF also held a public hearing recently, which will help shape the final schedule.

“We do anticipate that the ending of February, beginning of March, is the time frame of when that schedule will be available online for people to start booking,” Mills said. “Again, all of the input received goes into formulating that final schedule.”

There are several other factors that have also contributed to the cutback in ferry services for Southeast and Western Alaska. A lack of ships and maintenance issues are some of the biggest long-term struggles that will impact the future of the system.

Right now, two of the state’s newest ships — the “Alaska class” ferries, the Tazlina and the Hubbard — remain docked in Ketchikan. The state has recently decided to add side doors to both vessels; however, they remain unequipped to undergo extended voyages.

“We are going to have some discussions on adding sleeping quarters for crews to see if we can get extended voyages from them and get some use,” Sen. Bert Stedman told Alaska’s News Source on Tuesday. “Also, I think we will be looking again at the road extension out of Juneau to run up Lynn Canal, which is what they were designed for.”

Stedman says the state should cut its losses on several other ferries that aren’t likely to return to the water anytime soon, specifically the aging Malaspina — along with the Fairweather and Chenega, two “fast class” ferries that AMHS has been attempting to sell since 2019.

“Regardless of whether you support the ships or not, it’s just a business decision that has to be done,” Stedman said.

The senator hopes that talks about fixing the corporate model and business structures of AMHS will progress during the on-going session. A working group that he participated in, at the request of the governor, could present its findings to lawmakers in the coming months. He says he would like to see a sinking fund, which would help to fund the eventual replacement of ships, as needed.

“You’ve got management and labor issues wrapped up in there. You’ve got political issues where some people don’t want roads and some folks just want ferries ... Put it all together and nothing happens and the house burns down,” he said. “Those that want just the marine highway, and no other transportation corridor better prepare for the day when there is no marine highway.”

The status of each ship in Alaska’s AMHS Fleet can be checked here.

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