Empire Editorial: New idea for DOT: Look at an old one

  • Sunday, October 18, 2015 1:00am
  • Opinion

The Alaska Marine Highway System needs a new plan in light of employee layoffs and ferry layups that are likely to continue in future years. In finding a new, sustainable plan we hope Department of Transportation officials and Gov. Bill Walker will look to an old one already written down in Alaska’s playbook of ideas.

We’re talking about former Gov. Frank Murkowski’s Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, first announced in 2004 and intended to link communities throughout the Tongass by roadways and shuttle ferries. Murkowski’s administration secured many of the easements needed to link communities like Kake and Petersburg; Kake and Totem Bay; and Sitka and northern Baranof Island. The state still holds those easements.

This winter, AMHS will have the fewest number of vessels operating in nearly 20 years (seven), and that number won’t change much until the two new Alaska class ferries are built. When Southeast Alaskans travel and how frequently is rapidly changing, and with the shift in ferry schedules comes inconvenient side effects like shipping and receiving goods to rural communities, mail delivery and regional tourism. It promises to be a very different experience than what Southeast Alaskans have become accustomed to, and with an aging fleet that has frequently seen vessels sidelined due to mechanical issues this year, we’re a bit frightened by the worst-case scenario should 2016 see even more layups.

When former Gov. Sarah Palin took office, everything with the name Murkowski was shelved or replaced with a new plan carrying the Palin stamp of approval. The same happened when former Gov. Sean Parnell took over for Palin, and again when Gov. Walker took over. Throughout all these transitions, Southeast has been left without a viable, consistent transportation plan, leading to a ferry system where expenses continue to outpace revenues and now ferry riders are being told to simply do without.

Murkowski’s 2004 plan, which saw Ketchikan and Wrangell link to British Columbia via a $500 million road connection, is too pie-in-the-sky in some areas given the current budget crisis. But using matching federal transportation dollars to link smaller communities with day boats in some regions is an idea worth exploring once once more.

Murkowski’s vision was one where people could drive to a ferry terminal and upload their vehicle, then get off at another terminal a few hours later, and repeat the process until arriving at their destination. Such a plan would likely spur tourism in smaller communities, where people could stop along the way to eat, shop and rest. Operating ferries during shorter trips was expected to cut down heavily on much of the mandatory overtime forced onto ferry workers. If demand warranted it, private enterprise could step in to offer shuttles from one ferry terminal to the next for those who can’t (or don’t want to) drive.

When announcing the plan in Ketchikan on Aug. 14, 2004, Murkowski described it as “… a safe, reliable and efficient transportation system that will improve the quality of life for residents, and enhance the economic opportunities and stability of the region.”

More than a decade later, our ferry system is less reliable and sustainable than it’s been since the early- to mid-1990s, before many of its current vessels were built.

Cutting the ferry schedule, laying off employees and laying up ferries isn’t much of a plan, but it appears to be the only directive DOT is being given. Without a new plan to provide more efficient and cost-effective service, and the investment of highway dollars to make it happen, ferry service in Southeast will continue to change for the worse.

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