Lawmaker suggests privatizing parts of ferry system

KETCHIKAN — An Alaska lawmaker is suggesting some state ferry system routes should be privatized.

Sen. Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, said at the mid-session summit of Southeast Conference that some Prince William Sound routes of the Alaska Marine Highway System could easily be managed by private or nonprofit organizations, The Ketchikan Daily News reported.

“Keep the long runs, the longer routes, in control of the state,” Micciche said, according to the CoastAlaska report. “Privatize the smaller ones. And the cost savings could go to reliable service for the communities that absolutely depend on a state-run portion or segment of the ferry service.”

The ferry system serves 33 communities along Alaska’s southern coast.

Critics of Micciche’s plan say privatization is easier in theory than in practice and that contracting outside companies to operate service around Prince William Sound could affect the system’s unions.

A better option would be to contract out expensive ferry services like hotel and food services, Inter-Island Ferry Authority General Manager Dennis Watson said. IFA sails between Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island.

Most ferry system employees are members of one of three unions: Masters, Mates and Pilots, Inlandboatmen’s Union or Marine Engineer’s Beneficial Association.

“There’s a lot of labor issues there,” Watson said. “There are contracts, and labor has to be at the table when we talk about all of this.”

Robert Venables, a member of the Alaska Marine Transportation Advisory Board and an employee of Southeast Conference, said he worries privatizing parts of the system would only increase problems.

“We want to make sure that we don’t have the have and have-nots and Balkanize the system to where it’s not able to fulfill its mission,” Venables said.

The suggestion comes as the Legislature considers a new budget. The ferry system is facing reductions of more than $4 million at least and about $10 million at most.

The system’s summer schedule will continue as planned through September regardless of cuts from the state, ferry system general manager John Falvey said Wednesday.

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