Marooned: Cordova braces for a winter without ferry service

The Aurora, a 235-foot Alaska state ferry, approaches the dock in Whittier, its departure point for its trip across Prince William Sound to Cordova. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

There’s not much that happens at 4:30 a.m. in the coastal Alaska fishing town of Cordova in September, except at the ferry dock.

One morning last week, the car deck of the Aurora, the 235-foot Alaska state ferry, was brightly lit as pickups pulling huge trailers rolled aboard – fishermen bringing their families back to the road system at the end of the season.

Cordova has no roads in or out except for the ferry, which the state calls the Alaska Marine Highway System. Its ships typically run a few times each week throughout the winter, but not this year: Steep budget cuts made by the state Legislature and GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy mean that Cordova’s ferry service will end Friday. And it won’t start up again for at least seven months.

Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin stands at the end of the ramp onto the Aurora at his town’s ferry dock Monday, September 9, 2019. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

“It’s an exodus,” said a bleary-eyed Clay Koplin, Cordova’s mayor, who woke up at 4 a.m. to speak with a reporter before the Aurora’s departure. “People are trying to get out of here.”

Alaska’s coastal residents have long warned of dire effects if lawmakers sharply reduce ferry budgets: big increases to grocery prices, loss of businesses and jobs and even the permanent departure of residents who can’t afford to pay for regular plane flights. Now, absent an adjustment to the ferry schedule by Dunleavy’s administration, those warnings could become reality.

After this week, Cordova, Valdez and Tatitlek, a Native village in Prince William Sound, won’t see another ship until May, forcing residents to spend at least $150 for plane tickets instead of $70 for a ferry ride. Kodiak and two Native villages nearby will also lose service for more than three months between January and April. And some Southeast towns will go without ferries for a month or more.

Koplin, Cordova’s mayor, said he’s still pressing Dunleavy’s administration to relent and find a way to shuffle the ferry system’s ships to provide his town with periodic winter visits. If that doesn’t happen, he added, Cordova will explore ideas for private service – but it won’t do so quietly.

“There’s middle ground. It’s called baseline, minimal service, and that is not what Cordova is getting – we’re getting the lights turned off,” Koplin said. He added: “The message is, let’s keep this road open. We will work with you to do that. But if this road gets closed, the gloves are off – it is elected leaders’ responsibility to lead. And if an administration can’t understand services and provide services, then we need a new administration.”

Alaska’s ferry system was established in the 1960s, and it now runs along more than 2,000 miles of coastline, from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands all the way down to Washington state. It serves major commercial fishing hubs, tourist destinations and Native villages, and it brings families moving to Alaska from the Lower 48.

The ferries have faced a budget crunch since Alaska’s oil revenues crashed in 2014; during independent Gov. Bill Walker’s four years in office, the ferry budget dropped from $162 million to $140 million. One of its ships, the Taku, was sold off and scrapped last year, and two more are being prepared for sale.

Last winter, Cordova endured two service gaps of roughly a month.

Cordova will go more than seven months without state ferry service this winter. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

This year, Dunleavy proposed far more dramatic reductions to the ferry system, as he tried to balance the state’s budget while sticking to a decades-old legal formula that requires much larger Permanent Fund dividend payments to residents. He initially proposed cutting more than two-thirds of the system’s budget, leaving enough money to run it at the previous year’s levels for just a few months.

After negotiating with the Legislature and hearing vocal pushback from constituents, Dunleavy ultimately signed a budget that cut spending on ferries by 30 percent – far less than his original plan. But it still required substantial reductions, and when Dunleavy’s administration, in July, proposed its draft schedule for the upcoming winter, it included the seven-month gap for Cordova.

In response, lawmakers added $5 million for ferries when they passed a second budget aimed at restoring money to other programs that Dunleavy had vetoed. At a subsequent legislative hearing in Cordova, some 250 people – more than 10 percent of the town’s population – showed up to object to the seven-month service gap. Nonetheless, Dunleavy vetoed the $5 million, though his administration did add an extra week of trips in Prince William Sound before cutting it off for the winter.

Those who say the ferry system can be run more efficiently point to the numbers.

The state subsidy for the Prince William Sound route averages $5 million a year. It costs $27,000 each day the Aurora operates, and in the winter, its average daily revenue is $4,000, with 13 passengers and seven vehicles per trip, according to the transportation department.

In an interview, Dunleavy’s transportation commissioner, John MacKinnon, said it’s unlikely that the schedule for Prince William Sound will change at this point. But he said that when the ferry schedule was proposed, he and other department officials understood it would be a tough winter for Cordova.

“When this came out, a number of us looked at that and said, ‘You know, that’s a big gap for the Aurora in Prince William Sound,’” he said.

Before the schedule was finalized, MacKinnon said he asked ferry managers whether another ship, the Tustumena, could be moved to Prince William Sound for a week each month. But the answer was no, he said – there were problems making the Tustumena work in that area.

MacKinnon was born in Juneau, and he said he understands the importance of the ferries to Alaska’s coastal towns. But he rejected the argument made by boosters of the system that spending on ferries is the equivalent to spending on road maintenance and snow plowing. When budgets for paved highways are cut, MacKinnon said, there are more crashes, and people can die.

Alaska Commissioner of Transportation John MacKinnon. (Photo courtesy Associated General Contractors of Alaska)

“You don’t see people dying in ferry accidents in Alaska. You see people dying on roads in Alaska,” he said. “When we reduce maintenance to our highways, that’s a direct health, life, public safety issue. When we reduce ferry service, it’s a matter of convenience.”

MacKinnon said he doesn’t expect Cordova to face gaps this big for the long-term — there’s a new ship coming online next year, and he said he wants to restore some level of winter service for the town. But he also said the state’s economy is only so big, and may not be able to support all of its communities in the way that it once did.

Denise Branshaw, whose family runs a fishing business in Cordova, disputed MacKinnon’s idea that the ferry budget isn’t a matter of public safety.

When it stops running, she said, people have to switch to riskier forms of transit, like bush planes. She recalled a crash near Kodiak a decade ago that killed five fishermen while the Tustumena, which normally serves that area, was working in Prince William Sound, instead. (The pilot was also killed.)

“We lost five lives,” Branshaw said. “And it’s going to happen again.”

Branshaw was on the ferry with her husband – they were bringing a truck to Anchorage, and each of them had a long shopping list.

Cordova High School sophomores Cody Shaw and Amee Hamberger do homework in the cafeteria of the Aurora. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

“House supplies, groceries, supplies for my daughter’s family, for friends. Stuff for repairs; we’re getting furniture, a stove,” she said. “We’re going to be spending thousands, because we’re not going to be able to do it again for eight months.”

The impact of the ferry cuts won’t just hit Cordova, residents said – they’ll spill across Prince William Sound to Anchorage, too, since people won’t be going there for car repairs and groceries, and staying in hotel rooms. Instead, Cordovans will buy their goods from Amazon, or have them shipped up from Seattle.

“We’re not the only ones who benefit” from the ferry system, said Koplin, the mayor. Ferries help get his town’s money flowing through Anchorage and other communities, he added, so “they should help pay for it.”

“And when the state is involved financially, they are paying for it. That’s how it works,” Koplin said. “This is a system – it’s not Cordova’s ferry. It’s the state’s ferry.”

On the Aurora, passengers said they could live with significantly less ferry service, but many said they’re frustrated by the abrupt shift.

“I’ve lived here 36 years and just literally, within a month, find out it’s over,” said Becky Chapek, a Cordova business owner who describes herself as a “frequent floater.”

“That’s really a betrayal. That is a promise that went away without cause and without anything we did, as a community, to ask for that type of treatment. It’s not right,” she said. “It’s not like we’re extravagant – we’re sleeping on the floor. We just want, basically, a link. It just has to be dependable.”

Passengers on the Alaska state ferry Aurora walk onto the ship early on the morning of Monday, September 9, 2019. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

Other Cordovans said they’ll face higher costs when they have to fly to Anchorage for medical treatment; school sports teams have had to curtail their travel schedules. All those things start to stack up against the town, said Kaleb Carrillo, a high school senior who was riding the Aurora back from a swim meet the previous day.

“You want your kids to be able to have opportunities,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll figure it out. It’s just – it’ll make it a lot harder.”

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