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10/5/2019
B.C. ferry

BC Ferries is a potential solution to this week’s loss of state ferry service between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

The Alaska Marine Highway System made its final scheduled trip to Ketchikan’s sister city on Monday. The Malaspina, which recently marked its 4,000th voyage, returned to the First City on Tuesday.

The discontinued service is one of the repercussions of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s commitment to reduce expenses in an effort to eliminate a state budget deficit.

By the end of the legislative session in the spring, AMHS had its budget cut by more than $40 million.

With the impending loss of service between the two cities, Prince Rupert’s mayor recently visited the state capital to discuss a solution.

Discussions continue between Prince Rupert, the state Department of Transportation and the federal government, according to a reliable source.

Two issues are at the center of the debate.

The first is that U.S. Customs requires armed law enforcement to be present while the AMHS ferry is in port at Prince Rupert, and Canadian law requires that those authorities be Canadian. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reportedly lack the personnel currently to provide that presence. A claim that the Alaska Legislature provided funds to address this situation are untrue.

The second issue is that the dock used by the ferry requires upgrading. Canada requires that Canadian steel be purchased for that purpose, while the United States has a similar rule that necessitates U.S. steel acquisition. It’s a (steel)mate.

A B.C. ferry taking over where AMHS left off would give Alaskans access to the mainland and highway system, and serve the state, especially the Southeast region, economically. Southeast is interested not only in access for automobiles, recreational vehicles, vans and, of course, people coming in and leaving Alaska, but also to the waterfront activity growing in Prince Rupert. It is a connection to shipping lanes around the world. The close proximation has economic promise for Alaska.

Dunleavy’s administration contracted with a consultant earlier in the year to produce a report to be used as a guide for reshaping the ferry system at a much reduced cost. Initially, that $250,000 report was expected to be complete in October. Whenever the report materializes, it’s unlikely to reveal any information the state doesn’t already have in stacks of studies already conducted on the system.

It would be preferable to come up with an Alaska solution to the Ketchikan-Prince Rupert run — even a whole AMHS service solution. Alaskans want and need the jobs, and the jobs enhance Alaska’s economy. It’s disappointing to export jobs.

Perhaps the governor or the Legislature might tee up a bill for the upcoming session to establish a ferry authority similar to the Alaska Railroad.

The state and private enterprise don’t want to operate the ferry system, nor should it be overseen by a state government. AMHS shouldn’t be a political pawn, which it has been through the years. That situation has been its downfall.

A ferry system should be operated by professionals, not politicians. With federal funding available for highways, of which AMHS is one, a workable system that includes service between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert should be possible.

But in the meantime if a B.C. ferry started providing service between Prince Rupert and Ketchikan, then the state would be able to skirt the issue of rebuilding the dock in British Columbia.

An issue of ensuring that Ketchikan’s facilities could accommodate the B.C. ferry would arise. Also, security would remain an issue to be resolved by the governments.

Then comes the details of how frequently a B.C. ferry would provide service — bi-weekly, weekly, monthly.

Whatever it was, it would be more than what Ketchikan and Southeast have had since Oct. 1.