Southeast Conference panel optimistic about region’s transportation outlook

a state ferry
Alaska Marine Highway System ferry LeConte docked in Skagway in 2009. (Public domain photo by JWebber)

Attendees at the Southeast Conference in Sitka last month devoted the better part of an afternoon to the transportation outlook for the region – and for the first time in recent memory, it wasn’t all bad news. The infusion of federal transportation dollars into the marine highway system – along with infrastructure funding – are helping regional officials see better times ahead.

Several hundred people were in Sitka on Sept. 19 for the annual meeting of the Southeast Conference – and almost every single one of them arrived by air.

a plane
Alaska Airlines unveiled its Xáat Kwáani livery earlier this summer. Juneau artist Crystal Worl created the design. (AK Air/Ingrid Barrentine photo)

Alaska Airlines regional vice president Marilyn Romano said that on top of expanding passenger and cargo routes in Southeast, the airline has contributed half a million dollars to local causes, and flew in equipment this summer that helped a team free two humpback whales entangled in crab pots. It’s also introduced another salmon-themed aircraft, likely to become even more beloved than the old “Salmon Thirty Salmon” which was retired earlier this year.

Xáat Kwáani or “Salmon People” was designed by Juneau artist Crystal Worl, who also painted Sitka’s outdoor basketball court.

“What I personally believe is one of the most beautiful airplanes in any fleet of any carrier,” Romano said.

Most of the SE Conference transportation panelists were staffers from federal and state agencies. In Southeast Alaska, ferries remain a major focus, as the system has faced significant challenges over the past two decades, and is working to reverse declines that have made travel on them less reliable than in the past.

Milo Booth is the director of Tribal Governmental Affairs for the U.S. Department of Transportation. He said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s unscheduled trip on the ferry Hubbard between Juneau and Haines made the argument for marine transportation.

“(Buttigieg) spent four-and-a-half hours on that ferry,” Booth said. “And I thought ‘This is the perfect experience in Southeast Alaska: It’s raining like hell, we’re socked in, and we can’t take a flight to Haines. Let’s get on a ferry and get there.’ And we did. And I thought he was better for it, and at minimum more aware about it.”

Murkowski guided $270 million in federal funding to the Alaska Marine Highway System last year, and the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is developing a plan to overhaul the aging fleet. The system’s marine director, Craig Tornga, said a plan was needed because there had never been one. Ships should be retired and replaced after 30 years and should be able to serve the same routes.

The current system was a mix of vessels and facilities, and didn’t make sense.

“Right now we have a lot of one-offs, and it makes it pretty difficult,” Tornga said. “This boat can’t go here, this one can’t go there. And we have different docks. Even the Alaska-class ferries that were built in ‘17 or ‘18, they can’t go to a lot of the docks that we need them to go to. And so we have to make dock changes. And so that’s what we want to change, is have a standardization across the fleet.”

Tornga said the Marine Highway would have its first long-range plan in place by the end of next year.

The other pressing issue for the system is staffing. The ferry system has seven operational vessels, but only enough people at times to run five – and some personnel were giving it their all to make that happen. He said one mariner had just completed five straight months aboard ship.

Speaking from the audience, Dan Twohig, vice-president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots, suggested that the decline of the ferry system was a barrier to entry for new employees. He spent his twenties and thirties in Sitka and Southeast riding the ferries. Nowadays, the modern workforce hasn’t had that same introduction to maritime careers.

“The only way to really attack that is for the the employers that own the ships, that own the ferry system, that own the experience that we have for these kids to get on the ships when they’re young, figure out how cool it is, and then take the steps that they need to make it a career,” said Twohig. “And go forward from where we are and find the workforce of our future.”

Not all of the transportation panel was devoted to ferries. Christopher Goins, DOTPF’s Southcoast regional director, has brought an optimistic, upbeat attitude to his position – a survival skill, perhaps, since transportation projects in Southeast are fraught with obstacles.

One in particular in Sitka is especially difficult.

“I was just out with some folks yesterday on Katlian Bay Road, and we were looking at what we can potentially open in the very near future,” Goins said. “And so we’re making an assessment of that. And we think we can open up a portion of that (road). That job has been one of the most challenging of my career just with the amazing terrain, but we’re making progress towards that. And we know it can be built.”

Goins said the department was going to be spending $200 million on projects across the region, from Yakutat to Ketchikan, including $50 million on the Chilkat River Bridge in Haines. He stressed that transportation planners would connect more with communities in the future, and work from the ground up.

“We are trying something new,” he said. “We want to become a modern DOT.”

Robert Woolsey is the news director at KCAW in Sitka.

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