Alaska’s Marine Highway System sees leadership changes

John Falvey
This photo from 2014 shows Capt. John Falvey, General Manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System (middle) sitting with Doug Ward of the Ketchikan shipyard (left) and Troy Tacker of the shipyard (right), talking about the two new ferries that the shipyard was building for the state. (File/KRBD)

The Alaska Department of Transportation is changing the leadership running the Alaska Marine Highway System. The manager of the ferry system is leaving after almost 20 years and there’s a new deputy commissioner.

The Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board addressed the staffing changes at a Jan. 6 meeting.

“The system is in a really vulnerable place, right now,” said board president Shirley Marquardt. “So, you know, in terms of talking about planning for succession and transition, how does that work?”

DOT Commissioner Ryan Anderson attended the meeting.

“I really recognize there’s a lot of change going on right now. And that’s a serious thing,” Anderson said.

The marine highway system’s general manager of nearly 20 years, Capt. John Falvey, announced his retirement. His last day will be Jan. 17.

Commissioner Anderson said they will be “aggressively” looking for Falvey’s replacement over the next month through a national search. They did not have a job description ready at the time of the board meeting.

“It’s something we have to put the energy into,” said Anderson. “Make sure we’re all working together that we have good lines of communication and we’re all just solid on we have a purpose here. And that’s, you know, keeping the system moving, keeping Alaska moving.”

The state named Capt. Tony Karvelas interim manager – he’s currently the ferry system’s operations manager.

Falvey has served through five Alaska governors’ administrations. He was appointed as AMHS general manager in 2004 by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. Before that, Falvey worked for 27 years in commercial shipbuilding, and in ocean-class vessel and fast ferry operations, including crew management. He graduated from the Maine Maritime Academy in 1976.

No one from the state would comment on Falvey’s tenure when asked several times by CoastAlaska. But Anderson spoke about him briefly at the board meeting.

“I want to thank Captain Falvey for his service,” Anderson said. “He is a vast, knowledgeable man that I respect.”

Board Vice President Wanetta Ayers said Falvey would be remembered.

“He really has done a yeoman’s job for Alaska and for Alaskans, and for the Alaska Marine Highway,” Ayers said.

“He worked through quite a bit of financial and political chaos, which is normal, everyone has to do it, but he did that for 20 years,” Marquardt said. “Your time at AMHS is greatly appreciated by thousands and thousands of Alaskans.”

Falvey did not return emails and calls requesting comment. But at the ferry board meeting, he thanked all of the marine highway workers.

“It takes a team to keep this operation moving. It is very, very complex,” he said. “And it’s something that the person in this office – they can’t do that by themselves. And that is the ships’ crews, folks here in KCO [Ketchikan Central Office], the folks out in the terminals, it takes a real team pulling together to make it all go.”

The Department of Transportation, which oversees the marine highway, also has a new deputy commissioner. Rob Carpenter resigned at the end of the year and was replaced by Katherine Keith on Jan. 5. She previously served as the liaison for the ferry board.

Keith told the board she’s optimistic about the future.

“I think we’re at a time where we just want to look forward,” Keith said. “And the situation that we’re in is dynamic and things are happening in real time pretty quickly.”

Robert Venables, director of the regional civic and business organization Southeast Conference, has worked with Falvey for 18 years. He said in an email that “he will be a very tough act to follow.”

Board member Ayers said she hopes Falvey would share suggestions on managing the marine highway system and the specific skills needed for his replacement before he leaves for good on Jan. 17.

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