Sarah Eppon, left, and Earling Walli, right, join other ferry workers with the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific as they rally for support at 10th Street and Egan Drive on Friday, March 8, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Sarah Eppon, left, and Earling Walli, right, join other ferry workers with the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific as they rally for support at 10th Street and Egan Drive on Friday, March 8, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Rally calls attention to coastal connection to marine highway

Proposed cuts have employees preparing for worst

Meagan Nye grew up in Haines, riding the Alaska Marine Highway System every other weekend in high school to play volleyball.

Nye, 34, grew up to become an engineer for the ferry system. Her father and brother also work as engineers for the marine highway. It’s part of her “history as a person,” she says.

Now, she’s building up her resume in case she needs to leave.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget, released Feb. 13, proposed cutting the Alaska Marine Highway’s budget by 75 percent in the next fiscal year. That would mean far fewer runs of the ferry and could result in hundreds of job losses. Robb Arnold, vice chair of the board of the Inlandboatman’s Union of the Pacific, told the Empire in February that more than 250 union workers for the marine highway could lose their job if the budget goes through as is.

Nye, a third assistant engineer on the M/V Columbia, said she’s heard of people already preparing for the worst and getting jobs elsewhere. She’s heading to Maryland this weekend to take classes in case she needs to find a new job.

“It’s like cutting the lifeline of Alaskans and coastal Alaskans,” Nye said. “It’s also personal, because it’s just part of who we are.”

Nye spoke as she, Arnold and a handful of other marine highway employees and family members held signs and waved at drivers near the Douglas Bridge on Friday evening. Nye clutched a Heritage coffee cup as she held a sign that proclaimed, “Coastal Alaskans are people too.”

Other signs carried slogans such as, “Don’t sink our system,” “Stand tall for ferries,” (a not-so-subtle reference to Dunleavy’s “Standing Tall for Alaska” campaign slogan) and “Save YOUR highway.” That last slogan aligned with one of the main points Arnold made as he spoke prior to the rally. Cuts to the highway don’t just affect those who work on the ferries — they affect a whole region.

“We don’t want to be the star attraction,” Arnold said. “We want to be a part of the whole thing, because it’s about our state. We all care about our state. That’s the big thing I think. We love our state, we want to stay in our state, we don’t want to move. We want to stay Alaskans.”

[Study for ferry system’s future moving on ‘aggressive’ timeline]

In a press conference Friday, Dunleavy said he’s aware of the negative response to various cuts in his proposed budget and hopes the Legislature can figure out a solution.

“There has been, obviously, a lot of consternation for some folks,” Dunleavy said. “There’s been some emotion attached to the budget. We understand that. But now is the time for the Legislature to roll up their sleeves and start to look at alternatives, other possibilities so that we can have a discussion.”

The IBU is one of three unions that has workers on the ferries, Arnold said. The Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) and International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots (MMP) also have members on the ferries.

Arnold and union representatives have been regular fixtures at the Capitol recently, meeting with lawmakers and trying to inform them of just how important the ferries are to coastal Alaska and beyond.

Legislators from all over the state have also expressed concerns about what a massive reductions would do to people who rely on the ferry system. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, has been particularly vocal about wanting to preserve the marine highway. Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said in a recent Senate Finance meeting that gutting the ferry system could be “stranding” communities.

During a Senate Transportation Committee meeting Thursday, Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, and Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, both spoke vehemently about the importance of the ferry system. Hughes, who said she used to live in Southeast and still has family in the region, said she comprehends how vital the ferries are in the area.

“I also understand that the weather is often inclement,” Hughes said. “It’s not always safe to get in a small aircraft. I just want to make sure that we do this right and that we can continue to provide transportation for the people that live on the ferry system and in this region.”

Just prior to Friday’s rally, Arnold and others met with Hughes, who is the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

At the rally, cars honked as they drove by and those carrying signs cheered and smiled. The topics of conversation were not so cheery, though, as they talked about co-workers and friends who were already preparing to sell their homes and move. Nye said optimism in short supply.

“There’s a lot of people saying, ‘They can’t do this. They can’t do this.’ But I don’t know. Maybe they can,” Nye said. “A lot of people are really scared.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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