Alaska’s ferry system should become a public corporation.
That’s what a Southeast Conference steering committee of stakeholders has come to realize. The committee began meeting this year with the intent of reforming the ferry system.
Department of Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken endorsed the idea this week, allowing that answers to a few questions remain. But he overall expressed support for operating the system like a business.
It truly is what needs to happen.
The first ferry — the Malaspina — came on line in 1963, cruising around Southeast and into Prince Rupert. The Taku and the Matanuska followed and the system expanded to about a dozen boats and into other regions of the state. It has been serving about 35 communities ranging over 3,500 miles.
It’s a necessary and appreciated system, but it also is a subsidized one that has been strained to stay on course through each changing political wind. Taking at least some of the politics out of operating the system should eliminate the complications that come with it.
The ferry system also has found state funding challenging. With its primary service area in rural Alaska, the major population centers’ legislators often look to the system as a place to reduce expenses.
The looming state budget deficit already is a factor in ferries being docked and service routes being reduced even in the system’s busiest summertime season.
Converting the system into a public corporation would be similar to the Alaska Railroad.
The steering committee’s recommendation comes as a result of work completed by consultants Elliot Bay Design Group and McDowell Group.
With that recommendation, the next step will be to write a business plan.
The committee is moving quickly in relation to what often transpires with committees. The plan is expected to be complete in January.
The committee’s effort is something that inspires hope in communities dependent upon the system’s service. The service is a large part of some of these communities’ economies, specifically Ketchikan’s where the system headquarters is located and where two new ferries are being constructed in Ketchikan Shipyard.
Like the state-owned shipyard and the railroad, the ferry system can be a successful business.
— Ketchikan Daily News,