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Setting the state’s ferry system on a course like that of the state’s railroad is a potential outcome of upcoming legislation.
It’s not a bad course to follow, given that the Alaska Railroad has stood the test of time for 115 years (34 as a state-owned property) — and more than twice of that of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s 55 years.
Juneau Rep. Sam Kito III told a gathering of the Southeast Conference in Juneau this week that the legislation he’s preparing is imminent.
The bill would outline the ferry system’s future at a critical point, with the state making spending cuts to reduce a multi-billion-dollar state government deficit in the midst of a recession, and with 50-plus-year-old ferries requiring frequent repairs resulting in reduced and, at least for periods, no service at all between Southeast Alaska communities, Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and Bellingham, Washington.
Through the legislation, the AMHS would become a public corporation owned by the state. A key component would be funding that allows the corporation to budget 18-24 months in advance of its service. Another would be funds to maintain the ferries in operable condition.
The corporation would be governed by a board with appropriate expertise for operating a ferry system. The railroad has a seven-member board.
Head officials of the new corporation would need to be widely respected in the communities served by the ferry system, especially for their financial and budgeting acumen.
They would require plans to retain experienced ferry system staff, who are given clear direction and reliable equipment, particularly when it comes to the ferries.
Growth would be through marketing the ferries’ services and perhaps even diversifying to provide other transportation-related services. Potential freight customers should be courted; fares should be established that can be marketed in a way to make them competitive with other modes of transportation.
Specials might be made available to Alaskans for weekend getaways to other Alaska ports of calls, or something similar to entice and make it affordable for Alaskans to ride their ferries more frequently.
The corporation could collaborate with airlines, other ferry operators and the cruise industry to move Alaskans and visitors into and around the remote spots in the regions served by ferries.
That’s not to say that the current ferry management hasn’t marketed or endeavored toward these pursuits.
But corporate management by nature might provide the agility to accomplish what has been difficult under the current structure.
The ferry system is in crisis. It gives the appearance that it’s disappearing when schedules are reduced, when the ferries don’t operate because of inopportune repairs, when the mainline ferries are sold and not replaced, and when they come less frequently to mind as a transportation option because of their lack of reliability.
Such a situation calls for reform, maybe radical reform. But that’s what is needed for the ferry system, and perhaps it will be found in the AMHS-related bill coming forth this legislative session.