JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Wrangell, Haines, Gustavus, Angoon, Kodiak, Petersburg ... This is a short list of some of the communities that had leadership in Juneau on Tuesday. Chair Lousie Stutes of Kodiak told the audience that The House Transportation Committee had placed discussions on the issue of ferry services at the front of it's schedule- signaling its importance to lawmakers during the upcoming session.
"Getting funding back into our ferry system is my number one priority this legislative session," she said.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has formed a work group, tasked with making recommendations on the financing and service levels of the state funded ferry operation. The group will consist of members from the state legislature, several transportation advisory boards, multiple marine unions and from the general public.
Earlier in the week, the Alaska Department of Transportation released a proposed schedule which would cut winter service routes in many communities that rely on the Alaska Marine Highway System. Executive Director of the Alaska Municipal League, Nils Andreassen provided the committee with a presentation that highlights the economic importance of adequately-funded ferry routes, statewide. Data from the AML suggests that yearly- 658,959 Alaskans benefit from the ferry service indirectly. That research also suggests that among tourists, ferry passengers spend around $1700 on average, while other visitors spend closer to $941.
Despite obvious implications of the economic end, those that live in Southeast Alaska are also facing the impact on resident's well-being. AMHS is a primary mode of transportation for students to get back and forth school sporting and social events, and the impending isolation has already steered many away. Angoon Mayor Josh Bowen told the committee that his town had recently lost a teacher who single-handedly put together a cross country program that was loved by students; however he left when ferry routes became less frequent and passenger space was harder to come by.
"He felt so isolated that he turned in his resignation, and he came from Kotzebue," Bowen said.
Haines Mayor Jan Hill remarked on her towns aging population, and the limitations that cutting winter service would put on their access to medical care.
"We can survive with less ferry services than we grew accustomed to- but we can't survive with none," she said.
The schedule which was presented is just a draft, based on the projected state funding that ferries are set to receive this year. The plans could change if money is directed toward or away from AMHS operations during the 2020 legislative session. The public comment period for the proposed operating schedule for this year will be open through February 3rd.