Food. Medicine. Empty shelves. Alaska's lifeline 'we need the ferry'

Chuck Sassara, age 88, (in the red jacket) is an author, retired pilot, and legislator. He came to the rally to show support for a system he helped build in the early years of statehood.. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today.)

Joaqlin Estus

Alaskans rally in support of an Alaska Marine Highway System crippled by budget cuts

Hundreds of Alaskans turned out for rallies Tuesday in a half dozen communities as a show of support for the Alaska Marine Highway System. The ferries are virtually shut down due to budget cuts and vessel mechanical problems.

In Anchorage about two dozen people showed up to protest on a day when it felt like four degrees below zero with the wind chill factored in.

Last year the marine highway system was 11 ships covering 3,500 miles of routes providing service to 35 communities, a third of which are predominantly Alaska Native. The fleet transported passengers, vehicles, and freight to and from Washington, Canada, and Southeast and South-central Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Now, the system is reduced to one small ferry providing service to two Southeast Alaska towns.

That comes after the system’s budget was cut several times in recent years, then cut by another third in the fiscal year 2020 budget. The latest budget cut put several mainline and smaller vessels in drydock.

The "Matanuska" was the last mainline ferry still in service when it broke down in Juneau on January 16. Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials hope it will be operational again in early March.
Screenshot by Joaqlin Estus of Alaska Marine Highway System, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities photo

A few weeks ago, the sole remaining mainline ferry in service went out of commission due to mechanical problems. The people on board its last voyage were offloaded in Juneau regardless of their destination. Those with vehicles are scrambling to figure out to get them back to a road system or to their home villages, some of which cannot accommodate commercial shipping or barge service.

At the Anchorage rally, Candice Moore, Tsimshian, said she raised her family on the Southeast Alaska island community of Kake (a predominantly Tlingit village of 560), so she knows how important the marine highway system is for shopping, doctor’s appointments, and travel. She said her relatives in Southeast are facing a crisis due to the lack of service.

“The shelves in Angoon [a Tlingit village of 450) at the grocery store are completely empty. The kids don't have school lunches at all. I mean, they can only subsist [on food from nature] so much. Food will have to be brought in by the plane, which is so expensive it's impossible to fill those shelves through the plane,” Moore said. “This is our lifeline. We need the ferry.” Without a ferry, everything comes into Angoon by float plane.

Anchorage Assembly member Forest Dunbar said people in Anchorage may think the marine highway system isn’t important to them, but he grew up in a small town, where, “I can tell you when I was living in Cordova, we came here to shop. We came here to go to the hospital. We came here to go to basketball tournaments,” Dunbar said.

“Anchorage is intimately connected to the Alaska Marine Highway System. What harms communities like Cordova harms our entire state. And so we need to stand up together, to stand up for the marine highway system,” Dunbar said.

Kendra Kloster, Tlingit, executive director of Native Peoples Action, said she too knows the importance of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

“I grew up in Wrangell and Juneau, so I spent a lot of time going back and forth on the ferry system to see my family and with sports for school. That's how we got around. We could never afford to fly around to all of our communities,” Kloster said. “So the ferry system really is our highway. It's just as if you were to stop plowing and maintaining roads here in Anchorage. It's the same if you stop funding our ferries, you're cutting off our communities. You're cutting off our lifelines in Southeast.”

“I think all Alaskans need to be supporting each other. We need to be supporting our rural airports. We need to be supporting our road maintenance and we need to be supporting our ferries to make a prosperous Alaska. All of this needs to be functioning,” Kloster said. “You heard today that 51 percent of the people using the ferries are actually from Anchorage. So it's everyone across Alaska uses the ferries. It's just really important that we have that lifeline and we have our connection to our communities,” Kloster said.

Kendra Kloster, Tlingit, executive director of Native Peoples Action,  said for Alaska to prosper, Alaskans need to support rural airports, rural roads, and the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Kendra Kloster, Tlingit, executive director of Native Peoples Action, said for Alaska to prosper, Alaskans need to support rural airports, rural roads, and the Alaska Marine Highway System. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian  Country Today)

She said because of the shutdown, she’s got her uncle’s vehicle taking up space. “I have a truck here that he bought and I have to try to get it home to him,” Kloster said. “Our ferries aren't working so it's parked in my garage, and I don't know how to get his truck to him in Wrangell [in Southeast Alaska] right now,” Kloster said.

The Alaska Marine Highway System was created in 1962, just a few years after statehood in 1959. One of its earliest supporters came to the rally.

Eighty-eight-year-old Chuck Sassara of Big Lake and Anchorage is an author, retired pilot, and a former state representative. He said he fought for funding for the marine highway system in its early years. He remembers flying a legislator to Nome to persuade voters there to approve bonds for the Alaska Marine Highway System. “We knew how important it [transportation] was to get the state up and running,” said Sassara.

Vince Beltrami, president of Alaska AFL-CIO, said with ferry service nearly shut down, Alaska is losing a valuable work force. “We've got a fleet of workers who are experienced, know everything there is to know about the marine highway system and how to operate it safely, who are just sitting on their hands. If they can't get back up and running, they're not going to have much choice but to leave the state and look for opportunities elsewhere.”

He lays blame for the problem on Governor Mike Dunleavey.

“This governor, instead of addressing what I would characterize as an emergency in these communities, he's gallivanting around the country appearing on Fox News and other places trying to tell everyone how great everything is in the state of Alaska.

“Just come home, lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way,” Beltrami said. “Start putting some time and attention towards addressing the needs that friends, family, fellow residents have, that have been cut off basically in a lot of ways for months on end, unnecessarily making all their lives harder and more miserable than they need to be. We just need to invest practically in getting the fleet up and running in and resource it properly. It's all a matter of priorities. And he hasn't made this a priority,” Beltrami said.

When he was running for office, candidate Mike Dunleavy told KRBD in Ketchikan that he arrived in Alaska in 1983 on a state ferry, and, “I don’t envision at any time that there would not be a functional, robust ferry service in Southeast, the panhandle of Alaska,” Dunleavy said.

Once in office, however, he issued a veto that would have closed the Alaska Marine Highway System. He vetoed $96 million of the ferry system’s $140 million budget for 2020. Legislators restored some of the funds but the marine highway system still took a $43 million or 31 percent cut. And that was on top of cuts in earlier years. In all the ferry system budget came a third of what it had been ten years earlier.

Alaskans pay no income tax or state-wide sales tax. Dunleavy wanted to increase a dividend paid to each eligible Alaskan from a $67 billion savings account while keeping taxes where they are and without dipping into savings. A study he commissioned on privatizing the marine highway system said revenues only cover 35 to 40 percent of costs, making even a modest profit impossible. Last month he ordered the creation of a working group to come up with recommendations for future finances and service levels of the Alaska Marine Highway System. On Feb. 5 he announced a supplemental budget proposal that includes $12 million for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

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Correction: The number of communities previously served is 35, not 34. An inaccurately transcribed quote was changed to show 51% of ferry users are from Anchorage, not 54%.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a National Correspondent for Indian Country Today and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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