LeConte ferry (J Weber, Creative-Commons)

LeConte ferry (J Weber, Creative-Commons)

Haines is the last stop for state officials from the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and the Alaska Marine Highway System on a six-town tour. The community engagement forums aim to incite discussions on the financial state of the ferry system and its future. Deputy Commissioner Capt. Mike Neussl will host the meeting in Haines tomorrow (Wednesday) night, with Skagway residents encouraged to participate via teleconference.

When it comes to the ferry system, what’s more important, cost or service? What’s the bare minimum level of service that Haines and Skagway could survive on?

Those are tough questions, but these are tough times for the marine highway system. DOT and ferry officials are looking for some constructive community feedback. The meeting in Haines is slated for 5 p.m. in assembly chambers. Skagway residents can attend the meeting on the phone.

DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow says people can expect a budget overview with plenty of time for discussion and feedback.

“The idea is to generate some good dialogue, do some question and answers, and really just to have a lot of back and forth between marine highway system management and the general public to see if some good ideas can come out of it of how we can better operate the marine highway system.”

Big cuts to the state budget have prompted DOT and other agencies to get creative when it comes to cutting costs. In the recent past, various money-saving strategies have taken shape, including doing away with bars and gift shops onboard vessels, eliminating various contracts and ferry positions, and installing more fuel-efficient systems fleet wide.

According to the DOT, the marine highway system is facing a $15.9 million shortage in its operating fund in Fiscal Year 2016 compared to last year. As well, it’s getting $4 million less in its capital fund. In FY15, the ferries earned an estimated $53.5 million in revenue, up five percent from the year before. Also last year, the fleet carried more than 300,000 passengers and around 106,000 vehicles, making nearly 6,500 port calls.

The state team has already held forums in Sitka, Ketchikan, Cordova, Kodiak and Juneau to get ideas for continuing the service without butchering the schedule. Woodrow says most of the forums were very well attended, with over 100 people showing up in Cordova.

“Everyone is passionate about the marine highway system. It serves as an icon for Alaska and we expect people to bring that passion and their ideas to the public meeting tomorrow. We really hope that they do turn out and provide good, constructive thoughts.”

The presentation is online at ferryalaska.com under the service notices tab.

Residents not able to attend the meeting in Haines can participate via teleconference. The toll free number is: 1-800-315-6338, conference code 03902#. The line will open five minutes prior to the scheduled start time for each meeting.