Who needs the ferries?
We all do. For those of us who live in Southeast Alaska, the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) runs the ferries that take us where we need to go. The system is essential: the ferry transports us to appointments with doctors and dentists and optometrists, to places to visit our families and friends, to other communities to play sports, to connect us with roads north and south to travel further, to attend events like the Haines Fair or perhaps a wedding. When the planes cannot fly, the ferries still run, as happened recently when Senator Murkowski took the LeConte because the weather grounded her plane.
What has happened to the ferries?
This system has taken a battering for years. The Department of Transportation of which AMHS is a part has sold beloved ships, as well as the “fast” ferries, for amounts far below their original cost. Gov. Mike Dunleavy inexplicably has cut funding repeatedly, making the operation of the system such that some communities don’t see ferries for weeks or longer. Bizarrely, the bars on the ferries were closed to “save money,” despite the common knowledge that no bar in Alaska loses money. Schedules change or are unavailable. Phones go unanswered. No one is accountable.
What is dynamic pricing and why is it being used on the ferries?
Recently, my husband and I traveled to Haines, taking a car with us. We made a reservation in advance. When we decided to take a different car, one that was smaller, we called out of courtesy and were told that we would have to pay an additional fee because of the change even though the car was shorter and took less space. This is called “dynamic pricing.” Dynamic, of course, means something that is changeable. Airlines use this system so that every seat on a jet could conceivably have a different price. AMHS charges a different price depending on different factors. For example, I paid $44 for a one-way ticket recently—had I traveled during the time of the Haines State Fair, the price would have been over $60. The ferry system even charges “change fees” when a passenger changes a reservation. Why is an essential government service like the ferry system using a type of pricing that private corporations with shareholders are using? We call it price gouging when the airlines do it. Do we actually have recourse? We do. If an airline charges too much, we choose another carrier.
But what can we do about the ferry system?
However, if an essential government service does not actually serve its passengers, what are our options? If this were the City and Borough of Juneau bus system that decided to use dynamic pricing and charged higher prices at different times of the year, we would petition our elected Assembly, our elected officials, or we would go directly to our City employees to air our concerns.
As citizens and passengers, we have a responsibility and I would add, a right, to question the policies of AMHS, and to provide oversight to this essential public service. We need a citizen committee with enough power to question policies that are obviously not for the benefit of the passengers. We need citizens who are regular passengers on the ferries to serve on the board. We don’t need people who are appointed by government officials, people with “official” positions, people who may never have set foot on a ferry. We need a true passenger board to make sure that passengers are not being exploited. We need a passenger board of citizens who understand the difference between a private corporation and a public government service. In other words, we need a democratic solution, a passenger board, to provide oversight for an essential public service, the Alaska Marine Highway System.
• Bridget Smith is a regular Alaska Marine Highway System passenger. Smith resides in Juneau.