Alaska’s highway of ferries is under threat

What is lost when the floating highway that connects the state’s coastal communities disappears?

 

A rusting steel walkway roofed with faded Plexiglass led to the ferry docked in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Sirens wailed from the container port half a mile away, cutting through the moist air, as an acrid odor rose from the pier’s tar-coated pilings. I stepped out of the chilly late-September night and climbed a labyrinthine staircase to the boat’s passenger lounge, where a dozen people, covered with blankets and sleeping bags, settled in for the six-hour trip. The ventilation system whistled loudly, muffling the ship’s engines, as the M/V Malaspina — a 450-person ferry operated by the state of Alaska — set sail for Ketchikan, Alaska, possibly for the last time. After 56 years, the state had announced it plans to shut down the route.

Boats and airplanes are the only way to move through Southeast Alaska, a rainforest-cloaked strip of islands and coastline squeezed between glaciated mountains and the Pacific Ocean. There are no roads between most of the region’s towns and hamlets. Until relatively recently, when jet-serviced air travel became cheaper and more frequent, ferries were the main conduit among communities, and they remain far more reliable, efficient and economical than a barge or airplane. However, rising maintenance costs, declining ridership and a governor who favors privatisation have led to severe budget cuts and major service reductions, threatening the future of Alaska’s fleet of public ferries — and the connections, both economic and social, that depend on them.

Members of the Metlakatla, Alaska boys basketball team play video games while riding the M/V LeConte back to Juneau from a game in Haines. The scenic route has become somewhat routine for many teams in remote areas. Before the Alaska Marine Highway system, teams would charter local fishing boats to take them to games up the Inside Passage. Those unfortunate enough to miss out on a bunk would sleep in the fish hold.
Samuel Wilson

That fleet of ferries is called the Alaska Marine Highway System, or AMHS. “It has its name for a purpose — the Alaska Marine Highway System — we are on islands,” state Rep. Dan Ortiz told me in Ketchikan. The AMHS was created in 1963, four years after Alaska statehood, to weave the region into North America’s highways despite its geography. Prince Rupert, a Canadian city 40 miles south of the international border with road access, was its first southern terminus. The system grew over the next five decades, incorporating stops in Prince William Sound, the Aleutian Islands and Washington. By 2013, 35 communities were connected.  

However, unlike its asphalt counterparts, Alaska’s marine highway system would disappear overnight without government funding. Ticket sales account for about a third of its operating costs, and the state pays for the remainder. In early 2019, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed a 75% cut in the system’s funding from the state, from $86 million in fiscal year 2019 to $21.8 million the next year, which would have effectively shut it down from Oct. 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020. The proposal was an effort to reform the “inefficient system,” explained Donna Arduin, then the director of the Alaska Office of Management and Budget.

But after pushback from lawmakers and Alaskans, the administration backed down and allocated $48 million to the AMHS — barely enough to keep the ferries on the water. These cuts are likely to remain, with the proposed 2021 budget warning that the “AMHS will provide significantly less services.” The Ketchikan-Prince Rupert route faces additional challenges related to new U.S. Customs and Border Protection regulations and aging terminal facilities. As a result, in late 2019, officials reduced the number of sailings to many smaller communities and eliminated the route between Prince Rupert-Ketchikan entirely. “We’re looking at no service from here until June,” Travis Ohlson, a resident of Gustavus, one of the affected towns, told me a few weeks after my ferry ride. “People are freaking out a little bit.” 

IN GUSTAVUS, a 386-person community nestled against Glacier Bay National Park, everything — bulldozers, books, boots, computers, cars, coffee, produce, people, pets — must arrive by boat or plane. But when Ohlson was growing up there in the late 1990s, Gustavus didn’t yet have ferry service. So large items and most food came in by barge, including Ohlson’s first car, a used sedan that cost him $200 to buy and $600 to ship from Juneau. With shipping costs so high, residents were resourceful —expert recyclers by necessity.

Life changed when the AMHS started scheduled sailings to the town in 2010. The four-hour ferry ride from Juneau brought more visitors to the community, and groceries became more affordable. A one-way ticket from the city cost around $55, much cheaper than a roughly $120 plane ticket. Community members got used to the consistent, all-weather transportation linking them to stores, a hospital and a jet airport in Juneau. But now, those amenities are threatened by the abrupt transition back to pre-AMHS isolation starting in mid-January 2020.  

The losses could be far-reaching: According to a 2016 report commissioned by the AMHS Reform Initiative — a collaboration that’s working to revitalize the ferry system as a public corporation — every dollar of state money budgeted to the AMHS generates $2.30 in Alaska economic activity. The report also predicted that reduced AMHS service would cause economic losses for small businesses and fishermen, a higher cost of living in coastal communities, and a decline in the availability of medical care. Furthermore, without the ferries, Alaskans would “miss out on … unique opportunities to interact with, do business with, and learn from each other.” The AMHS, in other words, is both an economic engine and a floating community center well adapted to connecting people along the vast and rugged coastline.

Metlakatla, for example, a town 40 miles north of the Canadian border, that was founded in 1887 by several Tsimshian families who had been living in B.C. Many residents still have relatives and friends in Canada and rely on the Ketchikan-Prince Rupert ferry route to visit them. It is also their main conduit to obtain a valuable food, grease from the eulachon fish. Eulachon are small, oily anadromous smelt that spawn during late winter in coastal rivers between Alaska and California. They are harvested for their oil, which can be rendered into a nutritious and long-lasting butter-like grease. This longevity makes it possible to trade the grease over long distances. The timing of the spawn during the lean winter months gives eulachon grease significant cultural, economic and nutritional importance among many coastal Indigenous peoples. “It’s in our daily diet,” explained Judith A. Eaton, a resident of the Metlakatla Indian Community and tribal member.

But rivers near the community are closed to the eulachon fishery, so residents rely on relatives fishing on the Nass River in northern B.C. and trade for the grease. Without the Prince Rupert-Ketchikan ferry, fishermen from the Nass must travel over 150 miles in their own, smaller fishing boats to reach Metlakatla, making the grease harder to get and more expensive.  

Such connections aside, ridership on Alaska’s ferries has steadily declined since 1992, a trend that correlates with more frequent and affordable jet service to Alaska’s cities. Ketchikan hosts Alaska’s fifth-busiest airport, and the Boeing 737 jet that carried me south at the end of my trip — one of four flights to Seattle that day — was packed. Still, jets can’t land in most rural towns, and without the AMHS, getting in and out of most coastal Alaska communities means packing a few belongings on a small plane and hoping for clear weather. On my flight, I looked down from 35,000 feet in the air. I could see no roads — only an oceanic highway, waiting for a ferry.

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson is a Vancouver-based writer focused on the relationships between people and their social and physical environments, especially in cold, coastal and mountainous places. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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