My Turn: What AMHS learned during community meetings

  • Sunday, January 17, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

The Alaska Marine Highway System held six community engagement meetings across coastal Alaska last month. During this time the department also held numerous meetings with AMHS vessel and terminal staff. The purpose of the meetings was to involve Alaskans in the decision making process that AMHS is facing due to the reality of a declining operating budget.

It’s often been quoted that the heyday of AMHS is in our past. Just four years ago the system’s 11-ship fleet sailed 412 operating weeks. At the same time the State of Alaska was enjoying extraordinary revenues from North Slope crude and this was reflected in nearly every area of the state, including its ferry system.

Due to the dramatic drop in the price of oil, the AMHS undesignated general fund allocation — what funds the operating budget — is now proposed to be $31 million less than it was four years ago. Two of the system’s eleven ships will not sail at all this next year and several other ferries will only operate portions of the year. With less ships sailing, AMHS is estimated to deliver 320 operating weeks of service, the lowest in over a decade.

Any business when faced with a steep budget deficit would first look to cut costs, create new revenue, find efficiencies and, at the last resort, begin curbing its operations. We too have begun this process by closing bars and gift shops, eliminating 30 shore-side positions, installing fuel management systems fleet wide, increasing tariffs, and eliminating discount programs. These measures save money but not enough to close the gap.

AMHS is not a business, it is a service to all Alaskans. From the school groups who use the system to travel to tournaments to the military families moving from the Lower 48 to interior Alaska, we all benefit from a transportation system capable of providing a service that would otherwise not exist. This is why we must find solutions that will sustain Alaska’s ferry system well into the future.

As anticipated, each meeting included constructive and thoughtful dialogue. Alaskans are passionate about their state ferry system. A copy of the presentation and an entire summary of comments can be found online at, under service notices. Here is a brief list of issues that were raised at nearly every meeting:

• AMHS service is critically important to residents, businesses, tourists and economies.

• Many individuals are willing to pay more for reliable service, if the money goes to better service.

• The system is critical to social connections within the Alaska Native culture.

• Coastal Alaskans believe they are paying a toll to use their highway when other Alaskans in other parts of the state are not.

• Some communities’ economies and infrastructure were built with the promise of AMHS service.

• Schedule consistency, dependability and reliability are critical. Uncertainty is bad for a transportation system in terms of riders, repeat users and commercial customers.

• AMHS can save on fuel costs by slowing the ships down slightly.

• The system provides reasonable travel opportunities for school students and school officials. That travel is critical to the social development of our youth.

• The system is important to Alaska military personnel on assignment. It allows passage in and out of Alaska without requiring travel through Canada.

• AMHS needs a long-range transportation plan that is defined, realistic and within the 20 year planning horizon.

Alaskans are encouraged to continue to send their comments to It is our intention that the community meetings act as springboard that will continue to generate solutions that guide AMHS.

We are committed to using your ideas, when practical, to provide reliable ferry service to Alaska, and we thank those who have taken the time and effort to attend these meetings and comment on AMHS.

• Michael Neussl oversees the Alaska Marine Highway System as Deputy Commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

More in Opinion

Opinion: Program gives me hope that cycles of family violence can be broken

The program is a holistic family-focused, culturally based counseling/treatment model…

Have something to say?

Here’s how to add your voice to the conversation.

Deven Mitchell greets his fellow members of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.’s Board of Trustees at the start of his interview Monday to be the APFC’s new executive director. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: It’s an honor to now lead Alaska’s largest renewable resource

This October, I was provided the opportunity to serve as the Executive… Continue reading

Opinion: New to Medicare? Please consider this

Please choose “original” Medicare and avoid the so-called “advantage” plans

The Alaska State Capitol awaits a legislators forming new majority coalitions and the return of Gov. Mike Dunleavy after the winners of the general election were announced Wednesday. The Senate will have a 17-member bipartisan ruling coalition, while the House arrangement remains uncertain due to at least one likely recount and questions about partisan alignments. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The rising purple tide in the state Senate

A purple tide threatens to inundate the uncompromising wing of the state Republican Party.

Opinion: Giving is for everyone – and the time to act is now

You don’t have to be rich, or prominent, or famous to care about your community…

A roll of “I Voted” stickers await voters on Election Day in Alaska. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the prospect of a state constitutional convention. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Election winners, losers and poor losers

Tshibaka and Palin misread Alaskans by thinking Trump’s endorsement all but guaranteed they’d win.

Norwegian Cruise Lines announced in late August that it would donate a 2.9 acre plot of land owned by the cruise line since 2019 on Juneau's waterfront to Huna Totem Corporation to develop. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Aak’w Landing is Juneau’s most promising new project

Now, more than ever, our community needs the jobs, tax revenue, and stability…

Most Read