Coastal communities to be hit hard by reduced winter ferry schedule

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The Alaska Marine Highway System confirmed its winter sailing schedule on Thursday which will see reduced sailings for many coastal communities.

The impact of those reduced sailings will be felt across the ferry system, including on the Kenai Peninsula where some communities are using ferries to barge in water during ongoing water shortages.

“It's very cost prohibitive. Even just using the ferry system it's expensive to get ten pallets of water shipped here, so it's not sustainable for our budget,” Cassidi Cameron, Seldovia’s city manager.

For Prince William Sound communities, the lack of service is even more extreme. Cordova and nearby communities will see a roughly eight-month gap in service between late September and May.

Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin is looking to the positives for his community. AMHS added an extra week of sailings in late September that will allow commercial fishermen to ship freight onto the road system.

The town is an important fishing hub in Prince William Sound that has economic impacts across the state. 120 Wasilla-based fishermen and 100 Homer-based fishermen come into Prince William Sound this year.

“Cordova is a national fisheries powerhouse, the eleventh largest seafood port in the US,” Koplin said.

He is also looking at the schedule as a “work in progress” as he advocates for more service. His dream scenario would be two winter sailings a week to Valdez and Whittier, allowing residents to get on the road system and for outsiders to come in for special events.

Meadow Bailey, the communications director for the Alaska Department of Transportation, said she wasn’t aware of flexibility in the schedule and that the department has been trying to maximize service with limited resources.

Part of maximizing service involves introducing a dynamic pricing structure which will see passengers pay more for more popular sailings.

For Cordova, the problem of shipping freight is made more complicated by the loss of Alaska Airlines combined cargo-passenger planes or “Combis” in 2017, a popular way for people to ship freight by air.

Alaska Airlines added three freighters for cargo after the combis were taken offline. The airline also has the ability “to do drop-in service if needed or we can move some freight in the belly of aircraft flying that day,” said Tim Thompson, a spokesperson for the airline.

“Depending on dimensions and weight, some freight may have to wait for scheduled service or drop-in.”

Gary Graham, the owner of the Powder House bar and grill in Cordova, is furious about the gap in service and says he’s look at launching legal action against the governor.

Every two weeks, Graham uses Alaska ferries to take a box truck onto the road system to go grocery shopping in Anchorage. He says he spends roughly $20,000 every trip.

Without ferries over the winter, Graham says he will likely use barge services out of Seattle that will mean the Alaska economy will miss out on tens of thousands of dollars each month he usually spends in Anchorage stores.

Matt Shuckerow, the governor’s press secretary, points out that the governor did not veto the ferry system’s budget and after work with lawmakers, Dunleavy signed off on the $44 million cut made by the Legislature.

However, legislators did add back $5 million to the AMHS through House Bill 2001 in July that the governor did then veto.

“This was a Legislative addition without explanation. Additional funding at this time is premature,” read an explanation for the veto published by the Office of Management and Budget. “The plan to reshape the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) is still under development”

The reshaping plan involves a qualified marine consultant looking at ways to reform the Alaska ferry system. The consultant's final report is set to be sent to the department on Oct. 15.

Bailey says that the consultant is looking at long-term reforms for the AMHS and it won’t impact the upcoming winter schedule.

Robert Venables, the executive director of the Southeast Conference, says the organization has also long looked at ways to reform the system, including possible public-private partnerships and having the AMHS run by a board of executives separate to the Department of Transportation.

He is clear though that a loss of service will have profound impacts on Southeast Alaska. “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the ferry system to the region,” he said.

The Southeast Conference is set to hold its annual conference in ten days and Venables expects ferry service reductions will be a big topic of discussion.

For Juneau, the reduced service schedule means that sailings will go from daily over winter to twice-a-week, with one trip on Saturday and another on Sunday. Venables says it’s too early to tell what economic impacts that will have on Juneau.

For some communities in Southeast Alaska, there will be a nearly six-week gap in service from Jan. 15 till Feb. 29.

Angoon, with a population of roughly 500 people, is particularly vulnerable to that loss of sailings. The village has no landing for barges and is relying on freight by air will add to costs for supplies.

Former Democratic State Sen. Albert Kookesh says that will have wide-ranging impacts to the community. Fresh fruit and vegetables will be hard to come by and students may not be able to travel to play basketball, a popular sport across Southeast.

Residents also use the ferry system for medical treatment, Kookesh said.

“What it means is a loss of economic stability,” said Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes on the reduced sailings. “These communities have built their businesses around the Alaska Marine Highway System.”

Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands will see a loss of service from mid-January until the end of April. Stutes, who also represents Cordova, says these communities have been used to periods when ferries aren’t available over winter, but not for this long.

Part of the reason for the long stretch without sailings for the region is that both the Kennicott and the Tustumena will need more time than usual to be dry-docked for repairs, Bailey said.

For Stutes, the process to fund the ferry system isn’t over. “I haven’t given up, it’s time to rally the troops.”

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