Ferry system needs to focus on restarting service to Prince Rupert


September 27, 2023 | View PDF

We’re all happy to have the administration’s winter schedule for the Southeast ferry system. However, there are a few downsides. The first is the exception noted in the Columbia’s schedule, which leaves several communities without service in November and December.

It’s clear that the Alaska Marine Highway System has had a difficult time weathering the storms of the pandemic which resulted in a substantial decline in revenue as well as adequate crew availability. It’s unfortunate that the ferry system does not have an operational vessel in reserve to fully service the needs of Southeast communities.

Also noticeably absent in the announcement of the winter schedule was any information on the disposition of the recently laid-up Matanuska.

The ship is tied up in Ketchikan pending repairs for deterioration of steel plating, etc. Why isn’t the vessel scheduled to go into a shipyard for an up-to-date marine survey to evaluate the cost of bringing it up to U.S. Coast Guard and safety certification standards, including requirements for travel to foreign ports? It would appear that the state has significant funds available — thanks to federal infrastructure funding — to make major repairs as necessary.

This should be addressed during the current winter months to allow for operation in the spring and summer of next year, specifically for service to Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

It’s far more practical to extend the life of existing ships for a few more years, rather than let them sit idle while we wait to build new vessels in the neighborhood of hundreds of millions of dollars. We just can’t sit in a vacuum for three or four years while new vessels are designed and built. We should start now with the Matanuska for the Prince Rupert run.

In the past few years, the state Department of Transportation appears to have lost enthusiasm for serving Prince Rupert. This once thriving route connected Alaskans to the Lower 48, bringing tourism and trade, but regular service ended in 2019.

The Matanuska, with the necessary repairs, could restore the twice-weekly runs from Prince Rupert up through Southeast Alaska.

The ferry system has never had an aggressive promotional campaign reaching out to visitors who are used to traveling with their cars and campers. The ferry system provides that opportunity for them, but it must be promoted. While we have the Bellingham, Washington, alternative, many Alaskans would prefer driving a less expensive route up through Canada through Prince Rupert, which has proven to be an excellent travel route.

I hope that this suggestion of refurbishing the Matanuska to adequate marine standards will be initiated by the current administration as soon as possible. I also hope that the Southeast Conference supports the effort to open the Prince Rupert gateway again.

All Alaskans should be cognizant that the ferry system must continue to meet the transportation needs of the residents of Southeast, just as our neighbors in the Interior enjoy their highway system. Roads don’t generate direct revenue, but they pay off in commerce, trade and access. The same is true of our marine highway system.

The Prince Rupert run could be an infusion into the economy of Southeast communities, which are experiencing a slight population decline. Southeast Alaska wants and needs to reestablish the service to Prince Rupert, and now is the time to start.

Frank H. Murkowski is a former governor (2002-2006) and former U.S. senator (1980-2002) from Alaska.


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