Last week in Skagway, a couple hundred Southeast residents took part in the Save our Ships, or S.O.S., rally. The hope was to raise awareness – and ultimately more money – to replace ferries in the Alaska Marine Highway System’s aging fleet.
The event was sponsored by the Skagway Environmental Action League with support from Skagway Marine Access Commission, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Lynn Canal Conservation.
Jan Wrentmore is with the Marine Access Commission and says the event was a big success. She says that without new ferries, thousands in Southeast will be affected.
“All the communities in Southeast Alaska depend on the ferries,” she says. “They depend on them for their freight, for getting to medical appointments, for travel between communities for school children…I think to not replace some of the aging vessels not only puts our economies at risk, but in the worst-case scenario there could be a maritime disaster with all the breakdowns that we’ve been having.”
With hefty state budget cuts, and more on the horizon, a plan to replace the largest ferries is not in place yet. The Department of Transportation outlined in the recent draft Southeast Transportation Plan that the mainline ferries need to be replaced by 2024. The document says that Southeast’s fleet has three aging mainliners: the Malaspina, Taku, and Matanuska, all of which are around a half-century old. It says that all three vessels should be replaced or retired by 2024.
In 2012, then Governor Sean Parnell directed the design and construction of two 280’ Alaska-class ferries to take the place of one mainliner. This leaves two mainliners still needed.
According to the DOT’s draft plan, the system has previously carried higher traffic volumes with fewer ferries than are available today. It said that the system may be able to continue successfully without replacing both of these remaining mainliners.
But Wrentmore says one of the main messages at the rally on Friday was that the state needs to turn its attention to federal money when it comes to ferries. She says that at the rally on Friday, 180 signatures were collected, urging the governor to make ferries a priority.
“We wanted to draw attention to the fact that the DOT budget has minimal funding for ferries going forward. There is federal money available to fund ferries and DOT just has to ask for it and come up with a 10 percent match,” Wrentmore says.
The amount of funding allocated in the DOT draft plan is $16.5 million over the next three years.
In a letter to the DOT from Skagway mayor Mark Schaefer this August, he urged the state to replace the aging vessels sooner, rather than later, by leveraging federal funds. He says the level of funding currently set aside is not nearly enough, and that the mechanical issues continue to plague the Columbia and other vessels.
The Taku, Malaspina and Matanuska connect 11 communities in Southeast and beyond.