Many of the strongest and best memories from my childhood growing up in Juneau revolve around riding Alaska’s ferries to swim meets to communities like Petersburg, Sitka and Ketchikan. And later, as an adult, I have traveled across Southeast on ferries dozens of times for family trips, to deliver orthopedic clinics and surgery to remote communities, for hunting and for basketball games. Those trips opened my eyes to the astounding beauty and breadth of our state, and they introduced me to people from across the region. Ferries play such an integral role in the way of life in Southeast Alaska, and defunding them threatens the prosperity and health of our coastal communities and villages.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposes to zero out the Alaska Marine Highway System, freezing all transportation starting this fall. This proposal will devastate the economy of Southeast by astronomically driving up costs and cutting off communities from affordable resources. Not only is this proposal reckless, it is un-Alaskan, and we must urge our legislators to properly fund our critical infrastructure. At the same time, we should absolutely use this moment to contemplate ways to make the ferry system more economically sustainable.
It has been heartbreaking to witness the demise of the ferry system over the past years. First, insufficient ferry routes have made travel within our coastal communities much more expensive by forcing residents to instead have to fly. Second, the lack of predictability of the ferry schedule has made it nearly impossible to coordinate school events with other businesses, such as health care enterprises, because of the selection of boats and poorly scheduled sailings.
As the ferry system has lost funding and dependable scheduling has fallen away, we have seen a rapid decline in ridership. I once rode the M/V Fairweather from Juneau to Petersburg for a clinic and to do surgery. Unbelievably, there was only six passengers on board, but more than eight crewmembers. Obviously that represented really poor scheduling and boat selection by ferry management, and with that boat churning away to the tune of 500 gallons of diesel an hour, that ride must have been a great big red ‘x’ for the state that day. We have to do better.
Doubling down on this failure by gutting the AMHS entirely will ensure Southeast’s recession will only deepen. In addition to state funding, we should expect and demand a great deal more federal funding to support this critical piece of our state’s highway infrastructure. We must continue to find creative ways to tighten our belts, but we cannot put those cuts on the backs of rural Alaskan people.
If we shut down the coastal community ferry system, not only will the results be bad for business, but the lack of local transit will also destroy that which makes our state so special and culturally different: diverse communities at the geographic bounds. Yes, it costs more to live in the bush communities off of the road system. But, without access to those communities, Alaska will no longer be the unique place that it is.
Invest in Alaska by investing in the ferry system.
• Alan Gross is a lifelong Alaskan, a commercial fisherman and an orthopedic surgeon whose home is in Petersburg but who is currently living and working in Anchorage.