Frank Murkowski is on a mission.
The former governor and U.S. senator knows that the Alaska Marine Highway System has serious problems. He’s trying to encourage Alaskans — especially Southeast Alaskans — to stand up and get loud enough so the governor and other state policymakers actually improve service.
“We’re not yelling loud,” Murkowski told a Ketchikan audience earlier this month. “And that’s why I’m here.”
The event hosted by the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce at the Sunny Point Conference Center was partially a listening session whereby Murkowski could hear attendees’ views and concerns regarding AMHS.
He opened the event with some remarks of his own, describing the woes and missed opportunities that have afflicted the state-run ferry system in the decades since its peak utilization in the 1990s.
These range from an aging, less-reliable fleet; too much influence from changes in state administrations; lack of accountability by having AMHS within the road, bridges and airport-focused Alaska Department of Transportation rather than as a stand-alone entity like the Alaska Railroad Corp.; lack of support from other areas of Alaska that don’t understand the value and purpose of the marine highway; no marketing to attract the independent travelers such as those who have visited the region by cruise ship and would like to return and explore the area further with their own vehicle.
Among the other items voiced by Murkowski and attendees were the absence of service to Prince Rupert, British Columbia; the high cost of current ferry travel; funding inequities between support for road transportation and the marine highway; the need for infrastructure investment for the ferry system; and other items.
Ultimately, for Murkowski — who has made some specific recommendations for changes over time — the fate of the Alaska Marine Highway System depends on the people who stand to gain the most from its success or lose the most from its failure.
“We are seeing a resource, which is what the ferry system is, decline to a point where its life span is questionable,” he said, “and we are not, in my opinion, doing enough about it.”
The question is: “How important is it to you folks in southeastern Alaska to have a ferry system — a viable ferry system?” he asked “... Well, why aren’t you doing something about it?”
That’s an excellent question.
We greatly appreciate the constant work of Sen. Bert Stedman, Rep. Dan Ortiz and other coastal legislators to keep at least some AMHS service intact in the face of indifference on the part of some legislators and active hostility from other legislators and the current governor.
Southeast Conference has done solid work in promoting AMHS and working with the previous governor on a viable plan to establish a new organizational structure for state ferry service.
Alaska’s congressional delegation, too, has worked to maintain federal support for the ferries.
But we agree with Murkowski that it’s going to take more.
It will take the voices of an older generation who experienced the value reliable, regular and affordable ferry service during the prime years of AMHS operation, before a series of mostly politically induced circumstances began to afflict and erode the system. If you remember when there were AMHS sailings to Hyder-Stewart and two sailings per week between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, you likely well understand the differences between AMHS then and now.
Unfortunately, youngsters and recent arrivals to the region don’t know what it’s like to have a fully functional, year-round marine transportation option that’s reliable and affordable, both between Alaska coastal communities that don’t have road access, and between those communities and the North America road system. But it’s precisely the people who are the future of Ketchikan and other areas of coastal Alaska who have the most at stake — and whose voices need to be heard now.
We encourage every resident of Ketchikan to consider how a viable ferry service would benefit you now and well into the future. Where could you go? What could you do? What experiences and economic opportunities would it foster. If those things are worthwhile, get involved. Stand up. Make your voice heard.
As Murkowski notes, It’s time to start yelling. Loud.