ANCHORAGE (KTUU) — Residents of mainland Alaska cities are able travel around the state with relative ease, but thousands of Alaskans living in towns and villages off the main road system rely on the Alaska Marine Highway System, which faces steep cuts to its budget or privatization under the proposed budget of Gov. Dunleavy.
Hundreds of Alaskans made their voices heard at the House Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday about proposed cutbacks to the ferry system. They either packed into the meeting room or called in from areas like Kodiak.
“The ferry system is one of the only services and ways that we have to get our groceries and other goods, even from the city of Kodiak," said Denise May of Port Lions over the phone.
Currently, there are 10 ferries serving 35 ports from Alaska to Washington according to a comprehensive study by the McDowell Group — all of the routes heavily subsidized by state general funds. The governor's budget seeks to reduce its general fund contribution by almost 75 percent, and likely outsource privatized services to supplement.
"Five of our six communities are serviced by them," Ernie Weiss of the Aleutians East Borough said of AMHS ferries. "I've lived out in one of those communities, King Cove, for 25 years, and I know the value of the ferry system to the Alaska communities, and how critical it is to coastal communities’ survival."
Testimony at the Transportation Committee hearing was overwhelmingly in favor of continued state funding.
Those willing to consider a public-private highway system partnership adamantly opposed shutting down the ferry system to conduct studies.
"The infrastructure of Alaska, it depends on the Marine Highway System,” said James McCurdy of Kenai. “I think that as a state, we are doing ourselves a major disservice for even contemplating not running the ferry system year-round."
According to the governor’s office, ridership on the Alaska Marine Highway System is trending downward. In 2018, passenger capacity was just under 50 percent, while vehicle capacity was just over 50 percent.
If the proposed budget passes, the state would work with a marine consultant towards privatized service, or service by public and private partnership.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Weiss. The spelling has been corrected.