Hundreds gathered outside the Alaska State Capitol on Wednesday shouting cries to “Save our state!”
The Alaska Public Employees Association held a Save the Alaska Marine Highway System rally to protest the governor’s proposed plan to stop public funding for the ferry system in October. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget would cut the ferry system’s funding by 75 percent in the next fiscal year, and he has commissioned another study to look into options for privatizing the service.
“They might as well produce a bill that sends us back to territorial days because that’s what they’re trying to do,” said City and Borough of Juneau Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale.
Several legislators and public officials spoke on the steps of the Capitol, leading chants and preaching the importance of the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, took to the megaphone, and told the crowd, “Our job is to get the message through loud and clear to the administration: We’re not giving up our ferries.”
Last week, a record number number of people testified before the House Transportation committee on the ferry system. According to numbers provided by Stutes, on Tuesday, 484 Alaskans signed up to testify to the committee, the highest recorded on any topic since the Legislative Information Office began tracking testimony. Another 133 testified on Thursday, bringing the total to 617. There were so many people in attendance that an overflow room was needed at times. Additionally, 241 submitted written testimony.
“Thank you all for coming out and setting a record for public testimony in the Alaska Legislature,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, as he spoke at the rally. “Traveling freely around our country, and in this case our state, is part of who were are. It connects our cultures… it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about commerce, if we’re talking about school kids, if we’re talking about sports, if we’re talking about culture. The AMHS is what connects us in coastal Alaska.”
He said that many legislators from around the state were also in attendance at the rally, because the ferries aren’t just important for Southeast Alaska, they are for the whole state.
Many young people were also holding signs and advocating for the ferry system.
Helena McAlister, 14, is a student at Thunder Mountain High School. Her dad, Ryan, works for the ferry system. She said she plays flute in the band at TMHS, and they travel on the ferries for events. She’s scheduled to go to Ketchikan in April with the band.
“Most of the travel for my school, they use the ferry system,” she said. “So it’s very important that we keep it funded.”
There were many Juneau officials present at the rally. Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, was also a featured speaker.
“It’s not about what we pay,” said Hannan, referencing some supporters of the governor’s plan who have pointed out that the ferry system costs more than a highway. “It’s about what it will cost us if it’s gone.”
Another CBJ Assembly member, Carole Triem, said in an interview with the Empire, “I think that we all know that the road system is important to all of Alaska. And we all know that the marine highway system is important to all of Alaska. It’s weak leadership to be pitting the two against each other, and to be pitting regions against each other, when what’s good for Ketchikan is good for Kenai is good for Kotzebue. A strong ferry system is going to help all of Alaska.”
“Go get some food and go trap a legislator,” said Shannon Adamson who works for Masters, Mates & Pilots and helped organize the rally. She said this will be the last public event for the next few weeks while they wait for legislators to do their jobs and hopefully work to save the ferry system.
After the rally ended, several Alaska Native women led a group in singing the “Canoe Song,” which they said was a spontaneous decision.
“We were thinking, we always call the marine highway the big blue canoe, so it was impromptu,” said Nancy Barnes, who is Alutiiq and Tsimshian. “We’re all connected. Living here in Juneau, I just worry about our rural communities.”
Barnes and her friends Della Cheney, a Haida woman from Kake, and Nancy Keen, who is Tlingit, led the song.
“We’re just happy to be here for the blue canoe,” said Cheney.
• Contact reporter Mollie Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org.