Former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski in April 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski in April 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Frank Murkowski: Here’s how to fix the Alaska Marine Highway System

The former Alaska governor offers some suggestions.

Some wise old sage once said: “If you don’t know where you want to go, you will probably never ever get there.”

I was a young banker in Wrangell when the Malaspina first sailed into its slip more than 50 years ago. That was an exciting day. For the first time, you could (almost drive) a car to Wrangell or go to other communities.

I have been following the ferry system since then, including when I was taken to task as governor for moving the ferry headquarters from Juneau to Ketchikan right next to the state-owned Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) shipyard.

[Gov. Dunleavy proposes cutting ferry funding at the end of the summer]

Today we must face up to the reality that there is the need for large budget cuts in the state budget. The entire system is under fire and proposed changes are big ticket items. We must be prepared to tackle this problem with the Legislature. Do we have a plan — does it provide the level of service that Southeast requires? Can we fund it? Do we look to privatize the system? What is the answer to decreasing ridership? Are there new untapped opportunities to attract visitors to Alaska? Well, I have a few suggestions that you might want to consider.

While ferry service extends north and west to smaller communities, its focus and impact is for the most part Southeast. The need for the marine highway in Southeast has broad support among its residents, but that is not the case in the population centers of Fairbanks and Anchorage where the majority of legislators reside. They will fail to understand that to cut the ferry system to Southeast communities would be almost like closing down the Parks Highway between Fairbanks and Anchorage.

[Opinion: Why Alaska-class ferries were the right decision]

The Alaska Marine Highway System has been cutting costs, increasing fares, losing ridership and reducing schedules. We are cutting “off our nose to spite our face.” I still can’t help but question the sale of the Taku last year; it was believed to be obsolete.

The Kiplinger newsletter of Feb. 1 recently noted that “cruise travel is taking off in a big way — new ships, more riders and more destinations” and Alaska is the “number one cruise destination” with a projection of almost 1.5 million visitors to our state. Let’s capitalize on this.

We all know that our ferry system is no cruise line — we move cars, trucks, refrigerated vans, basketball teams, bowling teams, and almost anything that moves on a highway. And we are operating at a loss. So how are we going to increase ridership?

I believe we need to concentrate on a different type of traveler — the casual traveler. I am referring to the camper, the trailer, the pickup truck with the camper top. People who want to slow down and admire the scenery and the wildlife without the hustle and bustle of the crowded decks. Travelers who might take their pickup on the Alcan Highway to Fairbanks, travel through the Matanuska Valley, drive down to the Kenai, then catch the ferry from Haines through Southeast Alaska and drive home.

[Alaska plans for new ferry Tazlina to begin operation in May]

Another new and exciting alternative could be routing the camper tourist up on Highway 17 to Prince Rupert, taking the ferry to Ketchikan, then taking the Interisland Ferry to Hollis, driving the magnificent paved forest highway on Prince of Wales Island, visiting camper parks near Craig, Hydaburg and Klawock and terminating at Coffman Cove. Then boarding the new ferry with a choice of going north to the Mitkof Petersburg terminal which would connect to the marine highway system in Petersburg to Juneau, Sitka, Haines and Skagway, or south from Coffman Cove to Wrangell, Ketchikan and Prince Rupert with camper facilities available in the various communities.

In order to reach out to this type of traveler, we are going to have to promote an adventure that only Alaska can offer. This involves Alaskans in attendance at the numerous camper conventions across the country. Solicitations to members of AARP for, example, at which we show a promotional film illustrating campgrounds and trailer parks available along the way. We could provide illustrated maps with photos of the ferries and the routes they travel and their schedules, brochures from Southeast communities. Sure, it would take some funds to promote this, but it is an Alaska job creator. Travelers such as these need groceries, gas and guided fishing trips.

Perhaps one of our major corporations whose shareholders live in the impacted areas would take over a part of the underwriting along with the communities themselves. For example, Sealaska Corporation could lease one of the two inter island ferries or one of the new state day boats for the next two years and operate the service for the summer months, say April through October.

This effort could grow each year as the adventure begins to sell itself. Is there any other new venue that would have such a positive impact on the ferry system once it was initiated and promoted?

I believe that it is critical that we make the commitment now to present a positive plan to our governor and legislators that will be a solid investment and provide a favorable return to the state. To accept the status quo is to do nothing and is not acceptable nor responsible. We need to offer an alternative and we have one that is ready to sell now. I believe that we have the potential ridership with the high number of retirees that are ready to see Alaska.

In order to reach out to them, we are going to have to promote the adventure that only Alaska and our marine highway can offer.

• Frank Murkowski was the governor of Alaska from 2002-2006 and served as a U.S. senator from 1981-2002. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.

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