I saw a falling star last night. It reminded me of our Alaska Marine Highway system. Both are in a free fall. We cannot do much about the star, but maybe we can rescue our ferry system.
AMHS cannot continue to serve 35 communities, which requires an ever-increasing subsidy. Significant fare increases have caused a decline in ridership, fewer sailings and fewer ships operating. More than half of the fleet, including two of our mainline vessels — the Columbia and the Malaspina — is laid up with no operational plan.
It is my intention to urge Southeast Alaska to reflect on the reality of doing nothing. The mainliners will be scrapped, and the Malaspina might become a reef. The Taku was sold for $171,000. The two fast ferries sold for $5 million.
The AMHS has had the good fortune of maintaining a safety record second to none. The only incident I can recall happened in Wrangell Narrows with the Taku, which ran aground at low tide.
The idea of a marine highway for Southeast Alaska was proposed in the 1960s. The Federal Aid to Highways and Federal Capital projects, along with state funds, went into the construction of three ships — the Malaspina, the Taku and the Matanuska. Each had a capacity of nearly 500 passengers and 109 cars. I was in Wrangell in 1963 when the first ferry, the Malaspina, arrived.
Ridership increased and the Wickersham came online. Each of the seven roadless communities had almost a vessel daily, either north or southbound. It was a working and vibrant system, operating a marine highway at a high level of morale and dedication to timely arrivals and departures.
It attracted visitors who prefer to travel with their cars or campers. These are the folks we want to again come to Alaska via ferry.
This proposal requires money, coordination and cooperation among Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines and Skagway. The first step is to ascertain the import of the ferry system to each community. What does the system mean to each economy and how much does it depend on the ferry system? What kind of a future would the community have without the AMHS? Does the community believe that there could be a Southeast Alaska Marine Highway Authority?
At least three of the mainline vessels might be leased from the state for at least a three-year term. Each community would hold an equity ownership in the new authority with the larger communities having a larger percentage. An example might be Juneau holds 25%, Ketchikan 20%, Sitka 15%, and Skagway, Haines, Petersburg and Wrangell each hold 10%.
The new authority would take over the terminals and operate a centralized reservation system. The vessels would operate with departures in season twice a week from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and from Bellingham. This would provide a feeder service for visitors and Alaskans throughout the state with an adequate system sufficient to accommodate campers, trucks, trailers and automobiles.
The authority's tourism committee would send representatives to camper conventions to promote the new AMHS and unique Alaska attractions.
For adequate funding, a type of revenue bonding might be crafted. Bonding underwriters suggest the initial offering might be three years. Each of the communities would guarantee a portion of the revenue bond equal to their agreed equity ownership of the Authority. The bonds might be sold to AIDEA or the Alaska Permanent Fund. Repayment would come from ferry revenue and community tourist bed tax and sales tax. The state would continue to fund a portion of the expense of the new system based on a per mile transit of the ferries. A new labor contract would be negotiated.
The state subsidy can only be estimated. Subsidies are a reality to virtually all forms of transportation.
The recognition that we are unlikely to have our summer cruise ship visitors provides adequate time to work through the details with the communities toward the goal of taking over the Southeast portion of the AMHS and establishing the Authority.
The region has a breadth of marine talent. Evidence is the structure of the Inter-Island Ferry Authority. This system provides daily service with two vessels, the Prince of Wales, and the Stikine. This was organized by the communities of Craig, Klawock, Hydaburg, and Coffman Cove. It has been in operation some 20 years and is a major economic engine.
I outlined this draft proposal to stimulate dialogue. I have been in contact with former Gov. Bill Walker. He and I have had discussions about the transportation needs of our small coastal communities. Suggestions include working with each of the communities to ascertain the needs along the lines of the former mail boat service. Vessels could be built in Alaska yards with AIDEA funds. Crews would be local residents. Small vans and motor vehicles would be accommodated.
I am prepared to contribute my time and effort in meeting with groups in Southeast and with the governor, beginning May 15, to seek a solution.
Frank H. Murkowski served in the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 2002, and as governor of the State of Alaska from 2002 to 2006.