Alaska’s coastal communities to see lean winter ferry schedule with $45 million revenue hit

M/V LeConte in Haines in July.
M/V LeConte in Haines in July.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 2, 2020 at 7:17 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Marine Highway System is slated to lose roughly $45 million in revenue due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic seeing summer ridership plummet. Winter ferry service is being cut back as a result of those losses.

Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for the Alaska Marine Highway System, said the Department of Transportation is projected to lose “in the neighborhood” of $45 million from the fiscal year that ended on June 30 and through the current fiscal year.

The Alaska Marine Highway System’s total budget is between $90 million and $100 million per year.

Ferries being offline at the beginning of the pandemic saw revenues drop. Lower ridership over the summer due to COVID saw revenues taken from the farebox plunge:

  • In June, the state took in around $500,000 in ticket sales
  • In July, it took in $3.2 million
  • In August, the state collected $2.3 million
  • In September, the state is projecting to take in $1.5 million at the farebox

The Department of Transportation typically expects to see roughly $6-$7 million per month in ticket sales over the busy summer months, Dapcevich said.

The result of the COVID-impacted revenue hit is that the Department of Transportation is reducing winter ferry service across coastal Alaska. Some communities will also see service cut off for months at a time.

Last winter, a combination of budget cuts, the need for annual maintenance and ferries breaking down saw the Alaska Marine Highway System grind to a virtual halt.

Robert Venables, the executive director of Southeast Conference, said service will be fairly good for the first few months of the upcoming winter. “After the holidays, things really hit a wall for a couple of months and all the ports have gaps,” he said.

This upcoming winter there will be seven ferries operating across Alaska. There are often no redundancies if one ferry breaks down.

“This winter they’ve done it again,” said Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Democrat from Juneau. “There are long, long periods where there is no back up vessel.”

Dozens of people sent letters to the Department of Transportation during a brief public comment period that was opened for the draft winter schedule in early-August. Virtually all comments were scathing of the state’s plans.

Haines Mayor Jan Hill wrote that her community needs two days of ferry service per week that aren’t just on weekends. “You know that it is the only reliable winter transportation for essential medical and other appointments in Juneau,” Hill wrote.

Communities like Hoonah, Gustavus, Angoon, Pelican and Tenakee will see no ferry service from Feb 15. through April 11 as the LeConte will be in overhaul.

Gustavus Mayor Calvin Casipit wrote to the Department of Transportation that the village needs service twice a week, every two weeks at a minimum. “The Alaska Marine Highway System is our road. Just like pavement, highways, or railroads, the ferry system is our transportation lifeline,” Casipit wrote.

There will be a service gap for Prince William Sound, Homer and Kodiak from Jan. 7 through mid-March as the Kennicott will be taken offline for maintenance.

Seldovia and Port Lions were slated to lose service from October through late-March but the Kennicott will provide a sailing roughly every two weeks until it is taken out of service in January.

Kathryn Adkins, the co-owner of Kodiak Wilderness Adventures, a lodge in Port Lions, said that fewer sailings early in the season will still have a big impact. “We can get to Kodiak but then we’d have to wait two weeks until we can bring a vehicle back to Port Lions,” she said.

Adkins postponed all summer reservations at the lodge until next year due to the pandemic. Typically, hunters from the mainland will take the ferry to Port Lions in the winter to hunt for deer.

“That’s going to be zero, unless they want to stay for two weeks,” Adkins said.

The Department of Transportation understands the frustration, especially after last winter.

“We know that the communities expect more service than this, we would love to offer more service than this but the cold hard facts are the dollar figures,” Dapcevich said.

Kiehl disputes that. “The situation really is tough, the virus threw DOT a curveball but instead of just changing the swing, they ran for the dugouts,” he said. “Instead of coming to the Legislature and asking for more money or coming up with creative solutions, they’re tying up vessels, they’re cutting off communities in ways they don’t necessarily have to.”

The Legislature has not called itself into a special session to appropriate more funds for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

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