The Alaska Marine Highway System opened booking for its winter schedule on Thursday. There are fewer sailings and a new pricing system that could take travelers by surprise.
It’ll be a lean winter for state ferries as the system reduces service across the board. That’s following aggressive cost-cutting by lawmakers wary of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto threats. They cut the budget by $43 million rather than risk losing it altogether.
“We had to cut everywhere,” said Meadow Bailey, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Transportation.
“I mean, really. So, it’s not a decision to cut one route versus another, it’s a…across the board when we had to reduce our service by a third because we just don’t have—we don’t have funding.”
Yet some communities will feel the effects more than others: there are no sailings at all for the Prince William Sound communities of Valdez and Cordova for six months after September.
There are no changes to the draft schedule AMHS published in July, despite public testimony from communities that face being cut off for months. For those who still have the option to travel by ferry, it is likely to be more expensive. The marine highway is rolling out what it calls dynamic pricing.
“This is really similar to what you would see on an airlines. Around dates and times there is high demand tickets, the price will increase,” Bailey said.
In real terms that means passenger fares could climb by as much as 30%. A passenger going from Haines to Bellingham, Washington can expect a base fare of about $500. But that could increase to nearly $650 if the ship fills up. Vehicle and cabin rates could rise as much as 50% on heavily booked sailings.
But unlike airlines, the ferry system doesn’t have competition from other passenger liners. It’s a state-run monopoly.
The system is also instituting an increase in change fees—fees will increase for changes or cancellations close to travel dates. And fares will increase 10% for the days preceding and after special events.
Ferry boosters are panning the changes.
“This is unprecedented as far as I know,” said Robert Venables. He heads both the Marine Transportation Advisory Board and Southeast Conference—a regional economic forum. He pulls double duty as the system’s head cheerleader and a critic advocating reform.
“Even back in the early days of the system there was more service than this,” he said.
He acknowledges the financial challenges, but says the ferry is critical infrastructure that many small communities can’t do without.
“There are some communities especially in Prince William Sound where they are going many months without any service at all and that is… crushing to their economy,” said Venables.
He’s especially concerned about Cordova which has no road out.