The Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group meets Wednesday in the first of its two public forums, and is requesting public comment on the future of its 10-ferry fleet.
After budget cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System, steep financial losses and sailing cancellations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a ferry study commissioned by the Dunleavy administration, which ruled out privatization, the nine-member group was tasked to make recommendations regarding the ferry route and fleet.
In a press release, the Department of Transportation said that the mission of this group is to "deliver a more reliable marine highway system." And for many Unalaskans who rely on the ferry for transportation, income, and social and cultural travel, that goal is a welcome one, especially as the community has also been without reliable air service since April.
"The ferry's a good way to bring in exhibits," said Ginny Hatfield, executive director of the Museum of the Aleutians. "Our exhibition on Native Alaska dolls was brought to us through the ferry system by the person who collected those dolls. And she took them home again that same way. So, we really do benefit from this service and it's a hardship to not have it."
Hatfield said that although the museum was planning to bring in its exhibits by air this year, the loss of the option of the ferry would still pose a challenge in many ways.
She said with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic into Alaska and the closures and social distancing mandates that followed, this year has been difficult for the museum. And the additional lack of tourists due to limited capacity on ferries to reduce interaction between passengers—as well as limited sailings—has resulted in a huge revenue loss.
"We've lost quite a bit of our earned revenue," said Hatfield. "Pretty much all of our earned revenue for so far for this fiscal year, which we're only a couple months into, and at the end of last fiscal year, from the lack of visitors, which includes people coming in by ferry."
Unalaska City School District Superintendent John Conwell said that the ferry also plays a major role in transporting teachers to Unalaska when they move to the community. And once they're here, he says it's crucial for them to have affordable options for getting on and off the island.
"It definitely weighs heavy on our employees' minds when you have to put so much thought and planning and resources into something as simple as making a doctor's appointment in Anchorage or going to a relative's wedding or a funeral," said Conwell. "It's definitely a hardship."
Conwell said the ferry has also been a way for teachers to visit the island before moving here, before they even know they want to come teach in Unalaska. Cross country teams from around the state have used it to get to the island to compete in races. And historically, he said, the ferry's been a great way for people to gather and explore what he calls "the real Alaska" at an affordable price.
Shirley Marquardt, executive director for Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference (SWAMC), agreed that the marine highway system is a unique way of experiencing otherwise hidden parts of Alaska.
"The Aleutian Chain run is just one of the most beautiful, wild, and free parts of the planet," said Marquardt. "[There's] Izembek Refuge, and also the Alaska Maritime Refuge, which encompasses quite a bit of Unalaska as well. And people from all over the world—their opportunity to see that region of the world is pure and simple on the ferry system."
Marquardt said that the ferry is also essential for assisting smaller Alaska businesses—who rely on access to the more affordable transportation option for their employees and equipment.
"So you [would] lose that Alaskan business connection—that Alaskan neighbor connection is gone, if the ferry is gone," explained Marquardt. "And I just would really encourage folks to submit their comments online. It makes a difference. Trust me, it makes a difference."
According to Marquardt, public comment is the fuel of decisions in the Alaska Marine Highway System—a system which she said relies on word of mouth communication to inform legislators who may not be familiar with the system or regions that it serves. She said it is imperative for people to speak up during these public forums to prevent the loss of a critical infrastructure.
"Sometimes you just don't realize how important something was to you until it's gone," reflected Marquardt.
The Reshaping Work Group's first round of public comment will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday. A second session will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 2.
Audio from the meetings will be streamed through the Alaska State Legislature website and recordings of the meetings will be available on the Reshaping Work Group's website. People can testify by calling 1-844-586-9085. Comments can also be submitted at any time by email to DOT.AMH-Reshaping@alaska.gov.