The state of Alaska is continuing to push for reductions to service for the Alaska Marine Highway and its latest plan calls for “minimal essential service” for the winter season. In an announcement, the state says it’s necessary because of the drops in ridership due to COVID-19.
Just what that “minimal essential service” would look like is not entirely clear, but the state is only interested in hearing from the public through the end of this week. Public comments on the draft plan, which can be found here, is due by the end of Aug. 14.
To coastal communities, it’s the latest frustrating turn in service under Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who entered office by proposing deep cuts to the system in service of quickly privatizing it. On the Facebook page Ferries Move Alaska!, organizer Malena Marvin bashed the cuts and the timeline.
“Their press release states that ‘decreased revenues’ mean they are shutting off some communities from transportation over the winter,” she wrote. “That is wrong. Public ferry service should be tied to community need, not to pandemic-caused revenue shortages.”
Ferry supporters have argued that the state’s cuts to the ferries, justified by decreasing ridership, will only lead to lower ridership.
“To me, it feels like a mobster breaking somebody’s knees and then blaming them for falling down,” Marvin told CoastAlaska Radio. “I think a lot of communities feel about what’s happening to the ferries right now.”
Some legislators also criticized the move.
“A couple of days to tell Alaska DOT what coastal Alaska’s transportation infrastructure should look like for the next six months is a sad joke on public comment,” wrote Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl on Twitter. “Take a look and tell them what you think.”
A couple of days to tell @AlaskaDOTPF what coastal Alaska’s transportation infrastructure should look like for the next six months is a sad joke on public comment.
Take a look and tell them what you think. https://t.co/esijUJR8Wf
— Jesse Kiehl (@JesseKiehl) August 11, 2020
The CoastAlaska article notes that many of the routes would only be assigned one ferry, meaning there’s no slack in the system for potential gaps in service due to mechanical failures (as happened earlier this year).
As for the abbreviated public comment period, State transportation spokesman Sam Dapcevich acknowledged to CoastAlaska that it was a break from the norm.
“It’s not the same as our usual process,” Dapcevich said in a follow up statement, “but we needed to improvise due to the pandemic, low traffic levels, and the associated decline in revenue.”
On Ferries Move Alaska!, several commenters wondered if it was an effort to tamp down a negative reaction to the steep cuts to service.