LeConte ferry (J Weber, Creative-Commons)

LeConte ferry (J Weber, Creative-Commons)

By Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News

Thousands of people have booked ferry sailings that will likely be cut due to budget reductions. But for now, the ferry system isn’t letting them know.

Alaska Marine Highway Chief Mike Neussl says more than 9,300 people are booked for sailings that probably won’t happen.

About 2,500 vehicles are also scheduled for those sailings.

He says about 30 percent of those affected are Alaskans and the rest are from out of state. But ticket-holders have not yet been notified.

“I am reluctant to pull the trigger (and) cancel those runs that we’ve already sold tickets on and re-book all those passengers because of the possibility that some of that service may be restored if funding is restored,” he said.

Neussl explained the situation to the state’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board during a meeting Wednesday in Juneau.

He said travelers will be contacted and, if possible, rescheduled as soon as it’s clear how deep the cuts will be. He acknowledged some will be angry.

Board member Maxine Thompson of Angoon says that could impact future business.

“The wide-range fallout is not good for Alaska. They may start saying, ‘Don’t come to Alaska. You won’t be able to go from here to there because their transportation system is so iffy,’” Thompson said.

Neussl says he’s been ready to notify travelers several times, but didn’t because lawmakers suggested they might add more money.

Now, he’s less than optimistic.

“If the funding doesn’t happen, we have a plan in place to essentially lock the reservation system to prevent a massive amount of chaos and probably crashing the system with everybody trying to re-book on their own,” Neussl said. “And we’ll do an organized process of the reservation staff contacting every one of these itinerary holders, in the order that they made their reservations, to re-book them – or attempt to re-book them on a different vessel (with a) different time.”

He says the latest proposed budget cut, from the Senate, would remove about $11 million in marine highway funding.

Add lost revenue from cancelled sailings and other factors and the deficit could double. The total reduction is close to 10 percent of what the governor proposed for ferry spending next year.

State Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken says he’s given ferry officials instructions on how to rework the schedule.

“As we look at the impacts of the budget, as they make decisions on what runs to cut, those type of things … the place where I want to see the least amount of impact is on Alaskans,” said Luiken.

The House and Senate operating budgets list different reductions for the marine highway system. The difference will be worked out in a conference committee of leaders from both chambers.