Coastal communities relate ferry woes to House lawmakers

Cordova Mayor Clay Coplin testifies to the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020 on the lack of winter ferry service to Prince William Sound. (Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

Officials from a dozen coastal communities traveled to Juneau to voice support for Alaska’s beleaguered ferries.

They were invited by House lawmakers who held Tuesday’s hearing — the first day of the legislative session — to galvanize support for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

They each testified at the Capitol in-person. Though few had arrived on a ferry to get there.

“There is zero northbound service out of Sitka this winter — none,” Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins (D-Sitka) said. He added the only way to get his vehicle to the capital for the legislative session was to put it on a southbound ferry to Petersburg where it sat for a few days. A friend transferred it at 3 a.m. to a Juneau-bound boat.

That’s because there are currently just two ferries the Matanuska and the Lituya — in service this month.

House Transportation Committee Chair Louise Stutes called the current state of the fleet “extremely alarming.”

“Four of our mainliners are currently in mothball status and a total of six out of 12 of Alaska Marine Highway System ferries are not in service because of disrepair, lack of maintenance or poor planning,” she said.

That was the backdrop of remarks from local officials. One by one, from Homer to Unalaska and points in between they testified over the hardships faced from severe cutbacks and long service gaps following last year’s $43 million cut to state ferries.

Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin says Prince William Sound’s winter without service has been a struggle. And he warned that not running any ferries until the middle of May could cripple the port’s seafood economy. That includes the region’s $10 million Copper River sockeye salmon fishery.

“We appreciate the Alaska Marine Highway System, trying to work with the resources they have to provide service, but frankly, it’s not working,” he said.

Others testified to the committee that the ferries are the backbone of interlocking small economies that feed the rest of the state.

“It’s not like pumping oil through the pipeline where we keep track of that every day,” Homer Mayor Ken Castner said. “But the movement of goods and services and fish and tourists and things like that is amazing. And it really makes the coastal economy work and also makes the state economy work.”

A resolution from the Alaska Municipal League urged lawmakers not to wait until the end of session to inject more cash. It urges lawmakers to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of $5 million in additional ferry funding approved last year by the Legislature. 

Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed budget envisions flat funding compared to last year. But it’s still more than $40 million less than previous state ferry appropriations.

Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) says lawmakers are working to make the case for full funding.

“My hope is that the administration finally hears its constituents and realizes that the ferry system is vital, not optional for our Alaskan way of life,” she said.

No one from the executive branch spoke during Tuesday’s hearing. Invited testimony was unanimous against the cost-cutting.

“I don’t think it’s wise to starve the chickens to death in an attempt to cut the price of eggs,” Kodiak City Councilman Terry Haines told the committee.

The governor’s office recently announced it was appointing a nine-person taskforce to digest recommendations from a recent economic reshaping report commissioned by the administration.

But the make-up of the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group likely won’t be finalized until mid-February. And any recommendations from that group aren’t expected to be implemented for another two years.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.