By Larry Persily
Wrangell Sentinel 

Summer ferry schedule finally open for bookings


March 15, 2023 | View PDF

Just eight weeks before the start of the summer timetable on May 1, the Alaska Marine Highway System released its schedule and opened its online reservations system for bookings.

The schedule, which was announced March 7, came later than usual this year as the state continues to wrestle with crew shortages that will keep a couple of ships tied to the dock for the summer.

Wrangell will see a weekly ferry stop in each direction May through September.

“The Kennicott and Tazlina will be off-line for the time being due to skilled crew shortages, but will be brought back on-line once hiring increases,” the ferry system reported in its announcement.

The announcement described the schedule as “a baseline service that will be increased as AMHS crewing improves.”

As of Monday afternoon, however, the Department of Transportation was unable to say how many new hires would be needed before it could put either the Kennicott or Tazlina to work.

“This is not a surprise,” Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, co-chair of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, said of the cut in service. “It’s not a lack of funding from the Legislature.”

“I’m very disappointed,” said Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz, who serves on the House Finance Committee. Ortiz and Stedman, who both also represent Wrangell, have pushed hard to win legislative approval for state funding to operate a full schedule.

But without crew to operate all the vessels, the money could go unspent.

The inability to operate the full fleet means that no state ferry is scheduled to stop in Yakutat this summer, and no service is planned to Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Rupert, just a six-hour sailing south of Ketchikan to a highway connection, has been a popular and cheaper alternative for travelers with cars or trucks than paying three times as much to ride the ferry all the way to or from Bellingham, Washington.

In 2018, the last full year of ferry service to Prince Rupert before the state shut down the run in fall 2019, more than 250 travelers with 165 vehicles traveled between Wrangell and the Canadian port — more than rode the ferry between Wrangell and Bellingham.

Systemwide, about 6,000 vehicles traveled between Southeast ports and Prince Rupert in 2018, while 10,000 moved between Southeast and Bellingham.

The ferry system restored monthly service to Prince Rupert last summer, only to stop it again this winter.

Ortiz said he is frustrated over losing service to Prince Rupert, which provided southern Southeast travelers with a much more convenient and much less expensive highway connection.

The Alaska Marine Highway System, which is part of the Department of Transportation, “will be seeking alternative travel arrangements for … Prince Rupert and Yakutat travel,” Transportation Commissioner Ryan Anderson said in announcing the summer schedule.

“While we are hopeful we can get the Kennicott crewed over the next months, we will also be evaluating possibilities to continue Prince Rupert service through alternative means and provide supplemental service for Yakutat,” the commissioner added.

The state has not provided further details on “alternative means,” other than in past statements when it said contracting with a private operator might be an option to fill some service gaps.

The state has taken steps to recruit more crew for the ferries, but without enough success to fully staff the fleet.

A third vessel, the Matanuska, also will not be at work this summer, as the ship needs millions of dollars of steel work and other repairs. The state is figuring out how much to spend on the 60-year-old ship, how long it might continue to operate, and whether it is worth the cost.

“We didn’t need to lose the Matanuska,” Ortiz said. Pulling the ship out of service indefinitely left only the Kennicott with the necessary licensing to call on Prince Rupert.

The loss of key management personnel has added to problems at the ferry system, the lawmaker said, calling it “a red flag.” The general manager and business development manager both left this winter.

Ortiz also is concerned that continued shortcomings at the ferry system will make it harder for coastal legislators to convince their colleagues to fully fund the marine highway for next year.

Under the summer schedule, which runs May 1 to Sept. 30, Wrangell will see the Columbia stop northbound each week on Sunday, returning southbound on Wednesday, same as recent years when the ferry system operated one ship on weekly runs between Bellingham, Washington, and Southeast.


Reader Comments(0)


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2024

Rendered 06/12/2024 05:36