More trouble for Alaska’s ferries

Alaska’s state ferries — the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) — are in such bad shape that the system’s many problems were recently featured in the Washington Post. The story recounts how budget cuts, especially under a new Republican governor, have crippled the ferry system that serves thousands of Alaskans from Dutch Harbor to Ketchikan, not to mention many boatloads of summer tourists.

The comment section was not kind: “I have zeros fs to give for the Republican voters of Alaska. You got what you voted for.” “How about dispatching some great free market thinkers to Alaska, to explain to the suffering residents that free markets will take care of all of it, surely that’s all that’s missing here.”

Actually, some “free market thinkers” did just took a look at the marine highway system, in a $250,000 report that came out in January, and concluded that “Selling or leasing AMHS assets to private entities is not feasible if minimum levels of service are also stipulated.”

However, as of late February, Alaskans aren’t even getting minimum levels of service from their state-run ferries. Of the dozen boats in the fleet, only one boat is running: the Lituya, a small open-deck workboat that shuttles between Ketchikan and nearby Metlakatla. Everything else is either tied up for the winter, in the shipyard or for sale.

There was another active ferry, the Matanuska, one of the mainline, 24/7 ferries that run all the way from Bellingham, Wash., up through Southeast Alaska to Juneau and then up Lynn Canal to Haines and Skagway.

In January, the Matanuska made her maiden return voyage after two years in Vigor’s Portland shipyard but she broke down en route and hobbled into Juneau on one engine. The problem is reportedly something with the cooling system for the starboard-side reduction gears. After determining that the vessel couldn’t be fixed dockside, the empty boat limped south to the Vigor shipyard in Ketchikan, where she is expected to remain until April 14, according to AMHS.

Come April, several laid-up ferries are scheduled to be back on line and a few others should be coming out of the shipyard, so perhaps minimal service will resume this spring. Just in time for the summer schedule. Let’s hope so.

(For background on Alaska’s ferry woes, check out the March issue of WorkBoat magazine.)

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!).

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