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From Unalaska To Ketchikan, A Day Of Protests, Anxiety, And Anger Over State Ferry System

Hope McKenney/KUCB


Hundreds of people rallied around the state Tuesday to restore the Alaska Marine Highway System's regional ferry service. The fleet has been largely idle since the last mainliner in service broke down last month.

In Juneau, state and tribal leaders told 200 people gathered around the Capitol steps that for smaller coastal communities, regular ferry connections are a matter of survival.

"People who kind of have no idea — who come from a place of privilege — say, 'Well, that's your choice [to live in coastal communities].' Well, they don't know what it's like to be born in a community and to be able to say for 10,000 years that my forefathers were born in this area," said Richard Peterson, tribal president of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. "We have no reason that we need to move."

Sen. Jesse Kiehl (D-Juneau) told the lunchtime crowd that Alaska villages deserve a first-world standard of living.

"The store shelves shouldn't be empty in Alaska communities," Kiehl said. "They shouldn't be empty when we've got docks and we've got vessels and we've got skilled people to run 'em!"

Credit Eric Stone/KRBD
At Ketchikan's rally, Kobe and Keely Nall hold up a homemade model of a state ferry. They say they often take ferries to visit family and friends in Petersburg and Juneau.

In Ketchikan, about 60 people turned out. Some of them were state ferry workers left high and dry by the shutdown. Wade McClennan worked on the M/V Columbia, which has been tied up since last fall. In the meantime he's not drawing a paycheck. 

"There are a lot of uncertainties because we depend on our benefits," McClennan told KRBD. "When you're the breadwinner of your family, the uncertainty — how there is right now — just causes a lot of anxiety."

Meanwhile, in Kodiak, about 10 people gathered near the ferry dock. Many were retirees who came by ferry decades ago. Robyn Cassidy is a retired bookkeeper who first stepped off the ferry when she was 13.

"This is infrastructure. This isn't something special," Cassidy told KMXT. "We don't have any other highway, and it needs to be funded in full and quickly."

Credit Claire Stremple/KHNS
In Haines, Archie Dunbar and his father, Luck, riffed on President Donald Trump's campaign slogan to show their support for Alaska’s ferries.

In downtown Haines, more than 200 people gathered to show their support.

Luck Dunbar and his son Archie had a sign with a hand-drawn portrait of President Donald Trump in his characteristic red ball cap. They had a new take on Trump's campaign slogan.

"We're just trying to get through to the people that kind of run the show," the elder Dunbar told KHNS. "It's kind of something off the MAGA hat, but it says 'Make Our Ferries Great Again.' MOFGA!"

Credit Orin Pierson/KFSK
Throngs of ferry supporters turned out at Petersburg's rally.

For the Aleutian Islands, there are just four ferry trips scheduled for the entire year. Jeff Hancock is an senior officer with Unalaska's longshoreman's union, and he helped organize a rally that brought out about 40 people.

He said the ferry offers an important alternative to air travel.

"We have people — including myself — who have been stuck in Anchorage for multiple weeks waiting for flights," Hancock told KUCB. "It becomes a realistic option to think about getting on a three-and-a-half day ferry trip if you know you're going to be able to get home."

In much of southeast Alaska, limited regional ferry service is scheduled to resume next month. But under a draft winter schedule released last month, some coastal communities could go without any service through the end of the year.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has requested $12 million for supplemental ferry funding. But Department of Transportation officials told lawmakers this month that the money is needed for the existing bare bones schedule and would not expand service.

This story includes reporting from KRBD's Eric Stone in Ketchikan, KMXT's Kavitha George in Kodiak, KHNS' Claire Stremple in Haines, and KUCB's Hope McKenney in Unalaska. Disclosure: Jeff Hancock is the partner of KUCB's General Manager, Lauren Adams. 

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