In response to massive cuts to the state’s marine transportation system, a new organization has formed to advocate for the ferries in Alaska.
A collaboration between local municipalities and unions, the Friends of the Alaska Marine Highway System hopes to become a voice for the promotion of Alaska’s ferry system.
“More and more communities were asking why we didn’t have an organization advocating for funding the ferry,” said Percy Frisby, acting director of the organization. “The whole idea of this is to keep community members informed of what’s happening with the ferry system.”
The organization has yet to form a board of directors, but Frisby said that would be done in the coming days. According to Frisby, a consultant for local unions, the plan is to have an 11-member board, with four seats going to union members and the rest representatives from Southeast communities.
The AMHS budget for 2020 was cut by $38 million. Originally, it faced a $97 million cut proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in February. Since then, sailings have been cut back or cancelled to many coastal communities, and high repair costs have taken some vessels out of service.
According to the group’s website, members includes the cities of Cordova, Gustavus, Kodiak, Pelican and Skagway. Three unions — the Inlandboatman’s Union of the Pacific, the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots and the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association — are listed as members as well.
“It’s more the communities, not the union,” IBU spokesman Robb Arnold said by phone Monday. “We’re part of it on paper, but I think that it’s more community driven.”
While both Arnold and Frisby emphasized community participation, Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin said he was only vaguely familiar with the organization.
“There’s been so much fur flying on the ferries,” Koplin said.
Cordova has been particularly hard hit by the the cuts to AMHS. The last ferry for the season left the city in September and the next one isn’t scheduled until May 15, Koplin said. The city has been receiving supplies through Alaska Airline’s freight services, but the planes being used can’t haul large freight, according to Koplin.
“There’s been so many collaborations, so many initiatives,” Koplin said. “I’ve been collaborating directly with unions, other communities and (the Department of Transportation).”
Koplin said his involvement in the group may have been as simple as a verbal “yes” at some point.
He did say the city was willing to participate and that someone from the community, possibly city council member or someone from the community familiar with ferry issues, would be selected to sit on the board.
Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata was also unsure of the new organization, despite being listed on the website as a member.
“If we’re listed as a supporter, that’s a bit premature,” Cremata said. “We’re not against it, we definitely want more ferry service.”
Cremata said Skagway’s AMHS ad hoc committee was currently reviewing the proposal from Friends of AMHS to see if the city is interested in participation.
Skagway, too, has been affected by the lack of ferry service. Cremata said that a long-time resident of the town told him they might have to move away if the ferry situation were not fixed soon. The situation had gotten better since the Tazlina had resumed service but there was still no long-term solution, Cremata said.
But Frisby seemed optimistic the group would be an effective way for communities to advocate for the ferries service to their communities. Friends of AMHS would work with the Legislature, he said, to try and find a solution even if that meant restructuring the whole system.
The group doesn’t favor privatization, as proposed as an option by the Dunleavy administration in February, but some other way to make the system work better.
“I think the system can be restructured such that it can work and be affordable,” Frisby said. “We’re working with as many people as we can to look at the operation of the ferry system.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.