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Fight for the ferry system

This past week, the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Malaspina completed its 4,000th voyage since entering service in January of 1963.

Think about that for moment.

One ferry has threaded its way safely through the Alexander Archipelago while connecting Southeast Alaska communities with each other and the North American road system 4,000 times during the past 56 years.

And that’s not just 4,000 trips one way. AMHS counts the northbound and southbound segments as the same number voyage, with the voyage number changing at the farthest-most destination.

Over the years, just the sight of the Malaspina has had a powerful effect for many Southeast Alaskans.

This feeling was captured well by Betty Marksheffel, who wrote about seeing the Malaspina arrive in Ketchikan on Jan. 23, 1963, during its first voyage into Southeast Alaska from Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

 "I was looking out the window and saw the Malaspina in Tongass Narrows,” Marksheffel wrote, as quoted by the state’s “History of AMHS.” “Something happened at that moment — THE FEELING OF ISOLATION WENT AWAY! — as I watched the ship coming up the channel. We could take our car, or walk onboard, and GO SOMEWHERE!!!! Our highway had arrived!"

Ever since, Southeast Alaskans and others from across Alaska and around the world have seen the Malaspina and her sister AMHS ferries as the avenues of travel opportunities through a remote region.

We congratulate the Malaspina and the many crew members involved in the great achievement of 4,000 successful voyages. We also won’t forget the visionaries who founded the Alaska Marine Highway System and all state and federal legislators and personnel who’ve kept the Malaspina and the AMHS in operation for more than half a century, vanquishing isolation with a true marine highway.

Until now.

Early Monday afternoon, the AMHS ferry Malaspina departed Ketchikan for Prince Rupert on what’s scheduled to be last southbound sailing on that route. Once the Malaspina arrives back in Ketchikan early Tuesday morning, neither it nor any other AMHS ferry is scheduled to sail to Prince Rupert until at least May.

Why this is happening is a perfect-storm combination of U.S. and Canadian policies that all sides have allowed to become intractable, to the detriment of all sides.

As a result, Ketchikan’s easy six-hour ferry access to the North American road system will end. Our options will be 38 hours south to Bellingham, Washington, or about 27 hours north to Haines and 30 hours to Skagway.

This, along with the result of a massive state funding cut for AMHS, is returning the feeling of isolation to Ketchikan and other Alaska coastal communities. The highway that served us well is crumbling, and the current state administration appears interested only in hastening its demise.

That’s sad, as our infrastructure president might say.

Recently, former U.S. Senator and Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski told a Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience that it’s essentially up to Southeast Alaskans to come together and outline a feasible plan for continuing the role that the ferries play in the economy.

“We’re asleep,” Murkowski said. ”And if we don’t form what you think you need, you’re going to see it downgraded and downgraded and downgraded, and it’s going to continue to be downgraded until you get together behind a plan to operate it efficiently, effectively.”

Murkowski has some ideas — as does the Southeast Conference, which had been working on an AMHS reform plan and accompanying legislation until Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget was released early this year.

Time is of the essence. Dunleavy’s proposed budget could have sidelined the entire AMHS fleet as of Sept. 30, had the Legislature not worked out a funding deal that kept some service alive this winter. Who knows what the governor will propose next time around. Ketchikan and the rest of coastal Alaska need to rally around a plausible way forward soon, before that feeling of isolation returns — in full — once more.