Ferry advocates rethink management under smaller budgets

Should the Alaska Marine Highway System be managed differently? That’s a question being asked by ferry advocates as they cope with smaller budgets and reduced schedules.

Passengers disembark the ferry Malaspina in Skagway during its 50th anniversary sailing. Most ferry fares went up Jan. 1. (Photo by Mikko Wilson/360 North)
Passengers disembark the ferry Malaspina in Skagway during its 50th anniversary sailing. . (File photo by Mikko Wilson/360 North)

Since it began more than 50 years ago, Alaska’s ferry system has been part of the state Department of Transportation. And for the past decade or so, there’s been a Marine Transportation Advisory Board to provide input.

But the board has no real power and is often ignored when significant decisions are made.

So the Southeast Conference, a regional development group long involved in the ferries, wants to look at different methods of governance.

“There’s no presupposed answer to the question, how should the ferry system be run and what should it really look like?” said Robert Venables, who’s involved in the state advisory board and the conference’s transportation committee.

During a March meeting, he brought in John Waterhouse of Seattle-based Elliott Bay Design Group. Waterhouse researched different governance models for Washington’s Transportation Department, which runs that state’s ferries.

He said one of the largest is British Columbia Ferries, with 35 vessels linking 47 coastal communities.

“It’s probably the closest thing out there to the Alaska Marine Highway System in that they have routes that are providing lifeline service to outlying communities,” said Waterhouse. “But they also have the advantage of routes that are more commuter-based or more urban-based.”

The B.C. system used to be a crown corporation, owned by the government, but operated somewhat like a business. That changed about a dozen years ago.

“The province essentially said we’re going to make this a private company with one shareholder,” Waterhouse said. “And that one shareholder is the province.”

Waterhouse said some of its routes are subsidized. But others are not.

“So they have tried to divide up the operation by the economic benefit to the different communities and have challenged the management of BC Ferries to try to run it as commercially viable as possible,” said Waterhouse.

A very different example is The Steamship Authority, which links Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod and several other areas near Boston.

Waterhouse said it covers its operations and capital costs from its own revenues. Taxpayers contribute no money.

“What this means is that they do control their own destiny, but it comes at a very high price,” Waterhouse said.

He says a short ferry ride that runs $4 per passenger in Washington State costs $10 in the waters of Massachusetts.

“It is expensive to try and do this, but it’s a model that gives control of the ferry system to the community involved,” said Waterhouse.

Yet another approach is the Golden Gate Ferry, which is part of California’s Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

“That district uses that bridge toll money to fund both a bus operation and the ferry operation to help link commuters from the north side of San Francisco Bay into the city,” Waterhouse said.

It doesn’t carry vehicles, since there’s a bridge. But Waterhouse said it works.

“It is a model of a system where they are part of a transportation network,” said Waterhouse. “They don’t move a lot of people a year. But they do it fairly efficiently and again, they control their own destiny because it’s their bridge money.

For contrast, Waterhouse brought up The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, east of New York City.

“They have one route,” Waterhouse said. “They have three boats. And the system was originally started by the showman P.T. Barnum, who was looking to link agricultural products from Long Island to supply the city of Bridgeport.

It’s privately owned and operates without a subsidy. And it’s been in business since 1883.

“It’s been a successful system for that route,” said Waterhouse. “But it requires a commitment by the private family or the funding source behind it to keep this ferry system operating.”

Then there’s New York Waterway, which runs commuter ferries and buses to and from Manhattan.

It’s a partnership between private and public sectors. Waterhouse said government arranges for land and builds terminals and parking lots.

“They’ve turned that over to the public, because that’s something the public agencies can do better than the private agency can,” Waterhouse said. “The private part of it has come in in terms of the vessels. Those are purchased by, maintained by and operated by a private operator in the area.”

New York Waterway’s passenger-only ships were built by Sitka’s Allen Marine. Waterhouse says they’ve been so successful that they’re looking at expansion.

“They have seen that this is a transportation model that works,” said Waterhouse. “They have done their own economic impact study showing for every dollar spent on ferry transportation, what are the benefits to the community. So, the message is there. The ferries are fundamental infrastructure for the rest of the economy.”

He says ferry advocates need to be clear in their approach. They need to be able to tell their system’s story and explain why it’s important. And they need to focus on finances.

“One of the constant themes that keeps coming out is how do you get predictability of service without getting predictability of funding,” Waterhouse said. “Those have to go hand in hand.”

He also says Alaska’s current system for input is not the best way to go.

“You have to have that dedicated oversight that has to be more than just an advisory group,” said Waterhouse.

That’s an argument some advisory board members have been making for years.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.