Alaska’s ferry system is a hot mess

I love Alaska. I love the rugged remoteness and the awesome beauty of an immense coastline that stretches from Ketchikan to Dutch Harbor.

I love the small coastal communities. The first time I flew into Sitka, in Southeast Alaska, the sun was illuminating the snow-capped mountains on one side and a sparkling bay on the other, dotted with small islands. Later, I had the opportunity to zoom across the bay in a Boston Whaler to a potluck at a home on one of those islands.

If there was ever an area that needs ferries, it’s coastal Alaska. The towns are small and most don’t have roads connecting them or leading to the wider world. To get from one community to another, you either fly or float. Same goes for commerce. The bread for sale in Tenakee Springs comes from a bakery in Juneau and arrives on a ferry. Small boats that need repairs are sent to and from a shop in Petersburg by ferry. Heavy equipment for road repair in Sand Point arrives and departs by ferry. High school sports teams travel by ferry. Sick people get to doctors and hospitals by ferry. The ferries are an integral part of Alaska’s coastal life.

And yet, the ferries and the system that sustains them are falling apart. Budget cuts initiated by the current governor would have shut down all ferry service last fall had not the Alaska Legislature intervened to keep some of the boats operating. Several boats have been laid up for the winter (or longer) and service has been severely cut. Cordova, in Prince William Sound, has had all ferry service completely suspended for seven months.

The boats are old, maintenance costs are high, and political support for the system is slim and getting slimmer.

What to do? The Legislature is about to go into session and the future of the Alaska Marine HIghway System is sure to be on the agenda. A state-commissioned study of the ferry system has just been made available to the public and its options and recommendations will be considered this winter.

For more about the current sad state of Alaska’s ferries, check out our cover story in the March issue of WorkBoat.

About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

3 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Thomas Teseniar on

    Although I agree with some of your premise, not every town needs ferry service. Some still have service, but it has been cut back. This issue goes back to democrats, that expanded the service with no way to pay for it. Now with the ferries falling apart due to deferred maintenance, labor costs (read union), something had to give.

    You see Alaska doesn’t has a budget issue. Alaska has a spending problem.

  2. Avatar

    I spent 1 year as a mate on the ferry. Previously I worked for 20 years in all areas of Alaska as a commercial fisherman and in the US forest service. I took the ferry north and south numerous times to simply take my time and enjoy the the people and scenery. One of my favorite moments as a mate was when we had 4 hours to wait for the tide and watched humpback whales bubble feed in Fredrick Sound. All the passengers enjoyed hearing the sound of them when we had the PA system broadcast the sound of the whales as we got them from a small tour boat. YOU WILL NEVER HAVE THIS EXPERIENCE ON A CRUISE SHIP!!!!!!! I watched the onset of the cruise industry as it rose and changed travel, tourism and the many towns in Alaska. I blame the Cruise industry on the demise of the ferry as good part of the reason the ferry is no longer what it was. Previous to the the cruise industry, which employs mostly foreigners, most tourists took the ferry.

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