LeConte ferry (J Weber, Creative-Commons)

LeConte ferry (J Weber, Creative-Commons)

Residents from across Alaska spoke out Friday at a teleconference focusing on planned cuts to summer ferry service. The teleconference was a chance for citizens to comment on the record to Sen. Peter Micciche and Capt. John Falvey, of the Alaska Marine Highway System. The draft schedule shows significant reductions in service that will affect thousands of people in a myriad of ways.

“It’s not just a highway, it’s people’s lives. It’s people’s livelihoods.”

As ferry users spoke out, like Skagway’s Susan Reed, one after another, for more than two hours, the point was driven home that people need the ferries. It’s not a luxury, or a privilege, residents said. It is literally a lifeline. One Sitka resident said these cuts would be like blocking off the Sterling Highway from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula and only letting a limited number of cars through a few times a week. Others talked about medical trips, school functions and cultural impacts. But the common thread throughout was the detriment to these towns’ bottom lines because of fewer visitors during the tourism season.

Cody Jennings is Skagway’s tourism director and one of a half dozen Skagway residents to testify.

“The Alaska Marine Highway is very important to our quality of life not only here but all of Southeast Alaska,” Jennings said. “Not to mention it greatly affects our economies and we want to reiterate those points to you that it is extremely valued.”

Micciche, a republican senator who represents the Kenai Peninsula, serves as co-chair of the senate finance committee and is chairman of a finance subcommittee for transportation and public facilities. He admitted that some recent legislative cuts made were “clumsy.”

“This is a tough place to come,” the senator said. “I know that you’re going to be affected by these cuts, if not as much, more than any other communities, so we’re here to listen.”

And, he said, there is room for adjustments.

Falvey is the general manager of the marine highway system. He acknowledged that Sitka will see the deepest cuts to service, with only two stops slated each week for the summer. As the draft schedule stands now, Skagway and Haines would have port calls five days a week from mainline ferries, with Wednesday and Saturday left as no-ferry days. In July and August 2015, Skagway and Haines had ferries in port seven days a week, most weeks.

Falvey said they’re working to update an old economic impact study to get closer look at the impacts statewide of the marine highway system. He added that this could possibly be the lowest level of ferry service since the marine highway was born over half a century ago.

Skagway mayor Mark Schaefer said the ships link Southeast to the rest of the state and beyond.

“The Upper Lynn Canal generates significant traffic volumes which are directly linked to marine highway revenues,” said Schaefer. “This segment of the system helps support the rest of the system. We encourage you to look for solutions and find the way.”

Gerry Hope, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s transportation director, raised a concern that has been largely overlooked when talking about ferry cuts: The cultural impacts. He said the ferries are heavily utilized by Alaska Natives traveling to see family and friends for celebrations and potlatches.

“When we go to these Ku eex’, we bring cases and cases of jarred fish, jarred berries, jams, jellies, food, gifts, blankets – that’s a big deal,” Hope said. “And it’s not something we can just load onto Alaska Airlines with the amount of people that come to these Ku eex’.”

While no one from Haines commented at this particular teleconference, the borough administration is trying to rally locals for a similar event on Nov. 4. Borough manager Dave Sosa says they’re providing a letter template for residents to email to state representatives and officials. He says he hopes to have a stack of thousands of letters to hand over. He’s encouraging residents to speak out for this essential service.

“Over the course of particular weekends we get thousands and thousands of people into Haines,” Sosa says. “By reducing those runs, it makes it less likely those people will come in for big events like the beer festival and the fair and any of the other exciting things we do here in the summer. So, it’s a significant impact to local businesses.”

But, he added, it’s much more than that.

“It’s medical care for everyone in the community, it’s the schools going to and from events and is a key link in the education of the children of the community. It’s how we connect with the rest of Southeast and it’s how the rest of Southeast connects with Alaska.”

The borough assembly will vote on a resolution at this week’s meeting regarding sending letters to Gov. Bill Walker and other officials. The written public comment period ends Nov. 3, with the second teleconference slated for Nov. 4.

The summer schedule will be determined before the end of the year.

Written comments will be accepted via email at dot.amhs.comments@alaska.gov and by fax at 907-228-6874 prior to Nov. 3, 2015.