Pelican, Tenakee mayors ‘stunned and outraged’ at prospect of summer without ferries

Pelican harbor, pictured here earlier this winter. Pelican and Tenakee Springs were left off the draft AMHS summer schedule. (Heather Bauscher/Sitka Conservation Society)

Pelican and Tenakee Springs residents saw their fears come true last week in the form of the state’s proposed summer ferry schedule — a schedule that calls for zero summer sailings to the two remote island communities in Southeast Alaska. The towns’ mayors, already grappling with the current lack of ferries, expressed shock and dismay at the proposed schedule

Tenakee Springs hasn’t seen a ferry in months. And, as Mayor Dan Kennedy found out when he looked at the proposed summer schedule, that drought is unlikely to end anytime soon.

“It was stunning,” Kennedy said. “I mean they just left us hanging in the wind for a year or more, more than a year.”

Read our continuing coverage of the budget cuts and other recent problems with the ferry service in Southeast Alaska

The Alaska Marine Highway System was already in rough waters before the state released the draft schedule. Last year, the legislature cut funding to the system by about 40 percent, the price of avoiding a deeper cut proposed by Governor Mike Dunleavy which would have shut down the service for the winter. Since then, unexpected repairs have kept vessels out of service for longer than anticipated, further hampering service.

It’s not just the schedule that is working against Tenakee. The town’s dock is due for a replacement, and work is supposed to start in early July. Kennedy hoped they would get a sailing or two early in the summer to help tide things over until the dock is finished in December.

But if the draft schedule becomes the final word, Tenakee would be looking at another full year without ferries.

“Well I’m just outraged, you know,” Kennedy said. “I think the state probably has enough contingency funds somewhere to do something whether it’s hire a private vessel — that’s about the only alternative I see at this point.”

As it stands, the town is already suffering after being essentially stranded for months. The shelves are bare at the store, residents have struggled to make medical appointments, and all the local businesses have taken a hit. For many, it’s just too much to bear.

“Yeah a lot of people have just left. I mean I’ve never seen so few people in town. I mean it’s always less in the winter, but I bet we’re around 50, and I’ve never seen it that low,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy and others are doing what the can to advocate for the interests of Tenakee, but he’s not overly optimistic about the sway they hold in Juneau.

“Oh we’re just gonna try and keep pressure on the governor,” he said. “I mean we don’t have a lot of clout obviously, 50 people in the middle of nowhere right now and hopefully we can embarrass him into doing something.”

Forty air miles away, on the other side of Chichagof Island, the town of Pelican is also confronting the possibility of a summer without ferries.

Unlike Tenakee, though, Pelican’s ferry dock is in good shape. Mayor Walt Weller says it’s just not seeing a lot of use these days.

“We’ve got a really nice multi-million dollar AMHS terminal,” Weller said. “It doesn’t have a building or anything but just the docking structure is pretty nice, it’s only about ten years old. It’s just sitting there, I’m looking at it out my window it’s just sitting there looking wet and lonely and cold.”

Pelican, like Tenakee, hasn’t had a ferry in months. Neither community has an airstrip, and winter weather makes floatplane travel unreliable at best.

Weller echoed many of Tenakee’s economic and logistical concerns. He’s particularly worried about how to get trucks in to pump out the town’s sewer system. Another big question is how the town’s seafood processor would fair without a ferry to take its product to market.

Beyond the day-to-day challenges, Weller says the breakdown of the state ferry system has unfairly jeopardized island communities, overlooking the value that places like Pelican provide to the state as a whole.

“For our size, a major contributor you know to what Alaska’s all about,” he said. “Which is sport fishing, and tourism, and the world’s best seafood. And it’s like well never mind, you know, you guys are on your own.”

Weller, Kennedy, and other mayors and stakeholders throughout the region are scrambling to get some service restored where possible. Weller says Pelican could get by with just 8-10 sailings a year.

“Having some form of economical transportation in line with what the Alaska Marine Highway System was originally mandated for, which was commerce and supporting these small communities – that’s all we’re asking for,” he said. “We don’t have any reason to ask for a ferry every week or even every month. We just don’t want to be cut completely off.”

The DOT is gathering public comments on the proposed schedule now until February 3rd. They will also hold a teleconference on February 4th to hear additional comments.

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