AMHS TO PRINCE RUPERT - SENATE BILL 170
By Mary Lynne Dahl
March 02, 2022
Unfortunately, reform of the AMHS has been a topic of discussion in the Alaska legislature for about 40 years, without ever resulting in a satisfactory plan of action to fix the many problems in our ferry system. AMHS is so mismanaged and underfunded now that it is on the verge of a permanent collapse. This current discussion on SB 170 may be the last chance we have to save the ferry system that Southeast Alaska so desperately needs to survive and grow.
The specific issues are many and varied. The bottom line is that AMHS should be sustainable, provide a reasonable schedule of service to the communities and should not be politicized. As it now stands, the legislature funds the ferry system in a way that makes it a political football on which to make campaign promises and budgetary spending or cuts.
This is not a manageable way to run a highway. Land highways are not treated in as cavalier manner as the Alaska Marine Highway System has been treated, presumably because legislators all around the country know that their constituents would not tolerate their roads and highways being politicized and unfunded to the point of collapse.
For those of us in Southeast Alaska, several specific points are particularly important. One is the Prince Rupert/Ketchikan run. When AMHS was born, out of Southeast Conference, Prince Rupert was the first port of call to the lower mainland. There was no port of call to and from Bellingham or Seattle. Southeast Alaskans got to the lower 48 via Prince Rupert. It is a short ferry trip of about 7 hours. From there, you can drive all across Canada, into the lower 48 states and back. The roads are very well maintained, especially in winter, and scenic beyond compare (except of course, to Alaska). As important, it is far less expensive to take a ferry to Prince Rupert and drive yourself to wherever you are headed than to take a ferry to Bellingham and drive to your destinations. It is also cheaper than flying down to Seattle to rent a car or barge your car down then pick it up and do your car trip.
The current proposal from AMHS is to run to Prince Rupert one week per month with 2 round trips in that one week. This makes no sense whatsoever. It requires the traveler to either go down and come back within 3-4 days or come back in a month. Not many travelers will want to do either of those trips. A more reasonable schedule would be 1 round trip per week. That would accommodate virtually all travelers.
AMHS responds to the request for regular, reliable service to Prince Rupert by saying that it does not have enough boats qualified to do the Prince Rupert run once a week. Boats going to Prince Rupert and Bellingham have to cross Dixon Entrance, which means that they must have SOLAS Convention technology on board. SOLAS stands for Safety of Life At Sea, and qualifies the boat to operate in certain ocean conditions. According to AMHS explanations, the current fleet only has 2 SOLAS equipped boats available to cross Dixon Entrance. AMHS is not willing to commit to weekly sailings to Prince Rupert because it could reduce the revenue on fares booked to the Bellingham run. Apparently, tourists are more important than residents of Southeast Alaska. If this is the reason why AMHS will not commit to a weekly run from Ketchikan to Prince Rupert, I suggest several solutions.
One would be to install SOLAS on all of the ferries that do not already have it, using the federal infrastructure money provided to AMHS. Having all of the ferries SOLAS equipped would add much-needed flexibility to the entire system, allowing any boat to operate on any run. If SB 170 passes, it will create an Alaska Marine Highway Corporation. The management will change, hopefully for the better. It will enable better forward funding and reliable service minimums. I understand that approximately $200 million of federal infrastructure money will be available for 2022, for AMHS to use in support of the fleet and service to Alaskans. I also understand that the governor wants to use that money for AMHS operations, which is the wrong thing to do. The reason is that the federal money will run out in a few years, leaving the ferry system without operating funds. It is simply not sustainable to rely on a one-time gift to operate a large ferry system indefinitely. It is a much better use of the money to use it as intended, on a capital project such as SOLAS equipping of the ferries.
Another solution is that the Bellingham run can stop in Prince Rupert on its weekly trips back and forth. This was done in the past, so it can be done again. This will require thinking outside the box, not continuing to make excuses of what is not possible. It may require staffing changes. It will take more time for that run to complete each trip. It will add to the cost. These are not reasons why it cannot be done. They are excuses. I think it is time to stop making excuses and provide the service needed by the residents for whom it is a basic need. At a minimum, the Bellingham ferry could reserve a specific number of car spaces for each run, allow Southeast folks to book those spaces and be dropped off and picked up in Prince Rupert, as was done in the past when AMHS management was managed for the benefit of Alaskans, as well as tourists.
My point is that unless and until we as residents demand decent ferry service in Southeast, all we will get is excuses for why it cannot be done. That’s what we have now, and it is not working for those of us who need to travel to the mainland with our cars, kids, pets and business products for work, vacation, family, medical appointments and business or trade reasons. We don’t need more excuses; we need to fix this broken ferry system and restore it to its’ mission of “Keeping Alaska Moving” through service and infrastructure, as stated on its website.
The governor’s proposed budget to fund AMHS ferry service will fail as proposed. It is unrealistic, based on overly optimistic projected revenue, primarily ticket sales. Because the ferry system has developed such a bad reputation for reliability and traveler convenience, it will initially be an uphill battle to convince travelers to book those tickets. It will always require subsidy, just like all public transportation and infrastructure. It is critically important to the welfare of Southeast Alaskan residents, and should not be expected to be entirely self-supporting, any more than public safety or other services are self-supporting.
I intend to let my opinions be known to all of the House and Senate members by sending them my opinion on this issue. I hope those of you who have opinions will do the same thing. AMHS is our only option for car travel to the outside. Prince Rupert is the best port of call to those of us living in Southeast. We need access to Prince Rupert weekly, not once per month. It is time to be visible, vocal and insistent that it be done with our needs in mind, and the time to do this is now. Contact your legislators and make your voice heard before it is too late.
Mary Lynne Dahl
Received March 01, 2022 - Published March 02, 2022
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