Election-year kindness helps the ferry system

It sure seems the Alaska Marine Highway System is feeling a lot more love these days.

Could it be a fundamental shift in the governor’s attitude toward the coastal communities that depend on the admittedly heavily state-subsidized ferries (same as Railbelt communities depend on subsidized highways). Or could it be that 2022 is an election year.

Those are not questions as much as they are a combined statement of fact. It’s an election year and every vote counts in Alaska, which is notorious for close elections. When campaigning for reelection, as is the governor, port calls attract a lot more votes than empty ferry schedules.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy started his career as Alaska’s top elected official three years ago by cutting state funding for the ferries by one-third and talking of privatizing the operations, which would mean unloading the responsibility and letting the communities tread dangerous waters with less state help.

Legislators have tried to plug the leaks and rearrange the deck chairs, but the governor has used his veto pen to undo some of the repair work.

Now, in an election year, the ferry system isn’t getting new deck chairs but it is getting more loving attention from the Dunleavy administration. Thank you. Not an effusive thank you, but the help is appreciated.

The Department of Transportation, responding to service gaps this winter so large that you could drive a ferry through them, actually did plug a ferry into some of the holes. It pulled the Tazlina — a $60 million ship barely 3 years old but tied up to save money — out of wet storage at the dock and pressed it into service for February and March in Lynn Canal. It contracted with a private operator to run a passenger-only vessel into some of the smaller communities in Southeast.

The department also is working to restore Alaska ferry service this summer to the popular port of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, which would provide travelers a much cheaper way to get on the North American highway system than traveling aboard a ferry into Puget Sound.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has embarked on an aggressive hiring campaign, including a contract with a private search firm, to fill dozens of empty jobs.

And the newly created Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board will hold its first meeting on Friday. The governor last year supported legislation that established the board, a collection of nine Alaskans appointed by the Legislature and the governor. The board can only advise, not dictate operations and policies, but it’s worth a try.

It will take years to undo the damage of budget and service cuts, deteriorating decades-old vessels in need of replacement, and the pandemic’s hit to traffic. But it’s looking hopeful. Too bad there isn’t an election every year.

Wrangell Sentinel


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