August 1, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 30

Cuts in ferry system discounts, services loom

The ferry system’s 30 percent winter roundtrip discount is gone and come next summer, the “driver go free” option will disappear, too.

Cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) have been widespread and show no signs of slowing or reversing: Naturalist interpreters aboard vessels were eliminated earlier this year. Printed schedules will be discontinued next year. Southeast service will probably be cut. Tariffs may be increased early next year.

Along with the fine-tuning of administrative costs and the elimination of some of the 10 percent commission paid to travel agents, it’s all part of an effort to make up for a pared-down operating budget passed by state lawmakers in April. The $162.6 million budget is 3.1 percent less than what was proposed by Governor Sean Parnell.

In May, the ferry system reported to the Marine Transportation Advisory Board that it hoped fare decreases implemented in 2006 would mean increased traffic for the ferry system. However, studies showed that the fare decreases mostly resulted in existing traffic merely taking advantage of the discounts. Only the Metlakatla-Ketchikan route saw much of an increase in ridership.

In online responses to news of the loss of discounts and possible fare increases, several people recommended the ferry system increase its revenue by doing what airlines do when they aren’t filled to capacity: offer discounted fares or other promotions to encourage people to travel.

When asked if there is any chance that the 30 percent and “driver go free” discounts would be reinstated, AMHS communications officer Jeremy Woodrow said an “after action analysis will be conducted to monitor results.” Management will then make recommendations about the two discount programs to the Department of Transportation commissioner’s office, he said.

DOT commissioner Pat Kemp will also determine whether to recommend a change in fares.

In an effort to make its tariffs “fair and equitable,” AMHS is studying its entire system in order to make recommendations to either increase or decrease fares in fiscal year 2014. The last general tariff increase was in 2007.

Current and former AMHS deck and engineering officers and unlicensed crew, who through collective bargaining negotiated to ride for free on stand-by, along with their vehicles, will not be affected by any of the changes.

In addition to the loss of discounts and perhaps a change in fares, “Haines will likely see a decrease in service during the ‘repower’ of the Fairweather,” said Woodrow.

Repowering refers to replacement of a vessel’s engines.

The proposed summer 2014 schedule is planned for release in late August to allow residents and communities a chance to review and provide comments, Woodrow said.

How Haines residents will be affected by the proposed enforcement of the ferry terminal’s ban on overnight parking remains to be seen.

As it stands now, the draft policy calls for “public entities” to ask for “waivers” to allow overnight parking.

In a recent email to Captain John Falvey, Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott asked for an update so that the borough could apply for any necessary waivers in a “timely fashion.”

Falvey said because the parking policy for the ferry system’s 32 terminals is “complex and challenging to draft” and because “things are very busy,” no final decisions have been made.

“My plan will be to have it in place before the winter weather sets in,” he said.

Until now, “terminal staff has been extremely lenient with enforcing the no overnight parking policy. However, over several years the overnight parking situation in many AMHS terminals has become increasingly problematic, to where it affects terminal operations,” Woodrow said.

“It is not the wish of AMHS management to make traveling….more difficult for passengers, but to ensure that the terminal is safe and in equally good working condition for all travelers,” he said.

Abandoned cars being left at the terminals and liability have both been cited as reasons for not allowing customers to leave their vehicles overnight. Neither Woodrow nor local ferry terminal staff were able to provide information on the number of cars abandoned at the Haines terminal or the number of times that AMHS has been held liable for vandalism to cars left there.

Local resident Deb Kemp’s truck was one of several vehicles vandalized at the ferry terminal a few years back.

“We did not get any reimbursement from the ferry system,” she said. “A young man broke one of the backseat windows. There was nothing in the truck to steal. He and a few friends were just out vandalizing things that night. We got a written apology from the young man and he later reimbursed us after our insurance company paid for it. So, we paid our insurance company back.”

Some Alaskans believe that the funding cuts to the ferry system and the passed-on increase in costs to riding the ferry are part of an effort by some legislators to encourage the building of a road between Juneau and Haines.

The almost $2.5 million in “improvements” to the local terminal, which will include a riprap slope, mooring dolphin and fender system, off-shore dredging, two separate vehicle staging areas and relocation of the generator and storage buildings, are expected to be advertised for bid in October.