In this March 5, 2018 photo, the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries LeConte, left, and Fairweather are seen at the Auke Bay Terminal. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

In this March 5, 2018 photo, the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries LeConte, left, and Fairweather are seen at the Auke Bay Terminal. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Ferry system is an Alaska icon

Longterm solution necessary to save AMHS.

  • By LARRY JOHANSEN
  • Tuesday, March 19, 2019 11:11am
  • Opinion

Economists and budget analysts will give you all the reasons why having a healthy Alaska Marine Highway System is an economic primer.

When Alaska became a state, the first thing it did was vote to spend the money to build four ships to create the AMHS. The will to create this vital economic infrastructure was realized before oil was discovered or ever became a source of revenue. The creation of a ferry system was our economic driver designed to promote an economic boost to the entire state, including Interior cities not directly served by a ferry.

Eliminating the system by economic strangulation now would be subjugating the will of the people.

[Beyond the budget: What are the options to extend ferry service past October?]

In 1959, the marine highway was voted on and approved by us — the people of Alaska — thereby creating the AMHS the following year. It happened to be the year I was born in Ketchikan. You might say, like many other Alaskans, I grew up with the ferry system.

My earliest memories were trips aboard the AMHS for visits to my grandmother’s house. Every summer we took the ferry south with our empty station wagon that was filled coming back with new school clothes and cases of bulk food. It was always a social event, especially if you didn’t get a stateroom.

[Frustrations run high as many testify in support of ferry system]

Later, the AMHS would be the way our school was able to visit Sitka and Juneau to participate in the basketball tournament. After graduation, I used the AMHS to get to and from college. As an adult, I used the AMHS for my job. As director of operations for a cruise line, I used the ferry system annually to redeploy a fleet of buses throughout the state to best meet our product demands. I often rode the ferries between ports I needed to visit because it was the the most expedient means to travel.

Over the years I have come to realize that the Alaska ferry experience has become part of my life and what it means to be an Alaskan. It’s more than just an economic primer for me and the many Alaskans, like me, who’ve had so many memories from its operation.

The exemplary safety and service record of the crews of the AMHS have helped raise the reputation of the “blue canoes” to iconic status. The AMHS is famous worldwide and is as Alaskan as dog sled mushing and flying in a bush plane.

[Opinion: Collect tolls on state highways to save ferry system]

Eliminating the ferries from the communities it serves is more than taking it away from essential and emergency services — it is removing a way of life that defines us as Alaskans. Just the fact that we are considering shutting it down has been noted internationally by USA Today and other media outlets. The fact is, the entire world is watching us.

Former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski has some great thoughts on how to market the system by tweaking the routes and linking the scheduling pieces to a offer a coordinated product to a new type of market. My experience as a developer of tour products for an adventure cruise line tells me he is on the right track.

Whatever we do, we must have the resolve and optimism our young state had when it created the ferry system. The solution has to be longterm, regularly scheduled and convenient in order to work. If we let it go now, we will learn the hard way what we had and lost.


Larry Johansen lives in Juneau. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.


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