Governor looks to long-term ferry fixes as communities face short-term problems

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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced his picks on Wednesday for a working group tasked with creating a sustainable long-term plan for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Coastal leaders met down the street from the Capitol building for an Alaska Municipal League conference, discussing the immediate challenges facing their communities by a virtually non-existent winter ferry service.

“I’m afraid for our schools,” said Marla Howard, a councilwoman from Kake, before describing how school kids are being forced to fly to sporting events, a common complaint among coastal communities.

Similar stories are told in Wrangell, Mayor Steve Prysunka said ferries are seen as a more stable option than flights, particularly during bad winter weather.

The governor himself got weathered out of Wrangell when trying to fly in for a community meeting earlier in February.

In Kodiak, no ferry service means a tough time for residents to bring cars and lumber across from the mainland. “We are an island and we have no roads apart from the marine highway system,” said Pat Branson, the mayor of Kodiak.

Over in Haines, a winter with heavy snowfall has regularly prevented planes from landing or taking-off, meaning local residents are missing medical appointments.

“This is very concerning,” said Mayor Jan Hill, before continuing to describe that she’s hearing from friends and family that they’re looking to move away from Haines if the situation doesn’t improve.

The governor, along with additional funding and a reform plan before the Legislature, is aiming to fix the ferry system for the long-term.

Branson sits on the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, she agrees with an earlier study into the ferry system that recommended it be run under a public corporation model.

Prysunka seconded that saying ferry management needed to be taken out of a two and four-year political cycle.

“We know it’s impacting the lives of people,” the governor said about the lack of ferry service.

Along with Department of Transportation Commissioner John Mackinnon, Dunleavy described how the state got into the situation, citing lack of maintenance, an aging fleet and an unexpected need for repairs.

“In some respects there’s a perfect storm that’s come together this year,” the governor said.

Residents in Angoon have complained of bare grocery store shelves with no airport, no barge dock and no ferry service. The governor says he and Mackinnon are looking into stopgap measures for the community.

The Transportation Department is looking into a separate plan to use private ships to service the Upper Lynn canal.

Across in Kake, there have been similar reports of a lack of supplies.“The cabbage isn’t there, our produce is empty, our favorite hazelnut creamer, everything is getting pretty scarce,” Howard said.

For all the coastal leaders KTUU spoke to a common theme was concern and frustration. “This cannot be the new normal,” Hill said.

The working group is planning to make recommendations come Sept. 30 for the Legislature to consider in 2021. The working group is made up of nine members:


  • Admiral Tom Barrett (Chair), United States Coast Guard, Ret.

  • John Torgerson, former state senator

  • Wanetta Ayers, former director of the Division of Economic Development

  • Robert Venables, executive director Southeast Conference

  • Lee Ryan, vice president, Ryan Air

  • Ben Goldrich, Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association

  • Tony Johansen, co-owner Great Northern Inc.

  • Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka & Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak

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