The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Ferry reformers seeking public input, ideas on improving system

Marine highway is vital to travel in roadless communities throughout Alaska


The ferry system is broken - but reformers say the public is the key to fixing it.

That was the word in Valdez last week when committee members of the reform project hosted a luncheon for business leaders Thursday, just hours ahead of a public input meeting.

Gov. Bill Walker has long recognized the need to reform within the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) which connects dozens of roadless communities throughout the state with communities such as Valdez and Whittier, which connect to the state's highway system, ports in Canada and Washington state.

In May 2016, Walker backed funding to bring about reform, not more studies, not privatization, but a true reform of the aging system, which is now more than fifty years old.

"The AMHS Reform Initiative was launched in 2016 when Governor Walker signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Southeast Conference to identify structural changes to improve the long-term viability of AMHS, according to the website

Continuing budget cuts, shifting legislative priorities, lack of uniformity in vessels and terminals and a bloated state bureaucracy have lead to less ridership and even less revenue have all contributed to the crisis in the system according to reform backers.

Craig Watson, the mayor of Craig, Wanetta Ayers, interim executive director of the Prince William Sound Economic Development District (PWSEDD) and Robert Venables, chair of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board hosted the public input meeting in Valdez, which was designed to reach out to ferry users, business owners and travelers, to update stakeholders with current efforts and to glean ideas to make the system healthy.

"A 12-member steering committee was appointed, bringing statewide experience and perspective," the website says.

As part of its efforts, the group has asked for - and received, over three million comments and suggestions from stakeholders on ways to improve the system and bring back reliability.

Alaska's ferry system is not the first to embark on such a mission and reform backers have looked at how other state's have successfully revitalized their systems.

Rather than privatization, reform backers are currently eyeing a public-owned corporate model, possibly operating under one or more port authority. Two examples of that corporate model already exist in the state; the Alaska Railroad and the Inter-Island ferry, which services island communities in Southeast Alaska.

The first phase of the reform initiative looked at "governance models." Phase two is looking at the benefits - and pitfalls - of a public corporation.

The group hopes to have a draft report ready sometime in late August and information on plans to move forward are likely to be posted on the website often during the coming weeks and months according to backers.

Ned Rozell photo

Andy Sterns ascends Isom Creek along the path of the Trans-Alaska pipeline near the Yukon River.

"With the right suite of assets, leadership, and authorities – the system can make significant strides in enhancing revenue, aligning management and labor, and controlling expenses," the McDowell Group said last April in statement outlining the scope of work for phase 2 of the reform effort. "Phase 2 will include a technical analysis of the financial implications and opportunities resulting from this transition. More detail and discussion of a potential go/no-go decision and alternate deliverables follows below in Structure and Benefits of Public Corporation."

Reform backers say a complete restructuring of the system is needed or the whole system is likely to implode, leaving many communities without a viable transportation link - especially with the state's current fiscal crisis.

"The impact of declining oil production and prices on the state budget means that the ferry system must determine a way to maintain services while decreasing costs," reformers said.


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