Residents and leaders in Prince William Sound and Southwest Alaska communities this week urged state schedulers to keep ferry service going there this winter, despite deep cuts to the ferry system’s budget. Residents in Southeast voiced relief to have any service planned for the winter.
The Alaska Department of Transportation’s proposed schedule for the fall winter and spring reflects big service cuts because of the state’s belt tightening. DOT deputy commissioner Mary Siroky spoke at the beginning of two teleconferences.
“AMHS’s (Alaska Marine Highway System’s) budget was reduced by 43 million dollars,” Siroky said. “This is life altering, or in the case of the marine highway system, it’s schedule altering. This reduction came about through a compromise worked out with the legislature. So we are better off than we started and we appreciate the work that the legislature did to help get us to this point.”
Earlier this year, Governor Dunleavy proposed a bigger cut that would have shut down service statewide in the fall. This schedule stops service to Prince William Sound for seven months beginning in October. It also would have no ships running to Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula from mid-January through the end of April.
Cordova mayor Clay Koplin asked for a consistent schedule that his community could help market.
“What’s absolutely unacceptable is no service this winter in Prince William Sound and we have a long history of working with the administration in advocating for you and helping you get the funding we need to provide service in our community, whether that’s through the legislature, or whether that’s through good schedules and coordination and again allow us to market and promote the system and get more ridership on it,” Koplin said.
Koplin noted over 240 from Cordova also provided hours of testimony on the importance of this service during a Saturday hearing held by the House transportation committee
Another Cordova resident, Robin Irving suggested keeping the ferry Aurora cover the winter in Prince William Sound, instead of having it tied up for those months.
“We are getting the entire gap and Southeast is getting no gap,” Irving said. “So I think we need to make it a little more equitable and I think that’s one way to do it.”
Schedulers heard from multiple businesses that depend on a ferry connection through Whittier to Anchorage for supplies along residents who need that connection for medical appointments.
Becky Chapek runs a car rental business company in Cordova. “This total lack of service is not just an inconvenience,” Chapek said. “It is a harsh, unwarranted action that will put the nails in the coffin of many businesses here who are struggling to make it through the winter months.”
The proposed schedule will also impact travel for school sports teams.
Kodiak Island borough mayor Dan Rohrer said the gap in service left no option for shipping goods back to Anchorage.
“So anyways it basically leaves us with only the ability to ship through Tacoma and then back up to Anchorage for somebody to ship household goods, a vehicle, etc.,” He explained. “So anyways, very, very concerned about that January-February-March-April time frame. Absolutely would accept a little less service this time of year from Kennicott recognizing if we could pick it up in that January-February-March and April time frame.”
Meanwhile, there was some relief in Southeast communities anticipating bigger cuts to service. The proposed schedule would keep one mainliner running through the panhandle along with some additional service, mid-November to mid-January, to smaller communities in northern Southeast.
Dan Kennedy called in from Tenakee, an island community of around 144 people north of Sitka.
“It’s more than we were expecting after some of the first rumors which would have been devastating taking the ferry away for the winter,” Kennedy said. “Any reduction is a big negative for us. Almost all of our groceries and a lot of people, tourists coming to town is all centered around the ferry schedule. Right now we missed two ferries with the strike and the store’s already out of eggs and cheese and milk. All that stuff can be flown in but it adds a dollar a pound to whatever you’re doing.”
A DOT spokesperson writes that on top of the budget cuts the ongoing strike will impact the ferry system’s budget even more, limiting any changes that could be made for more service. The proposed schedule has a short period this winter when only one of the system’s 11 ships will be operating, while others will be tied up or undergoing work.