Last call: state to close bars on ferries


It’s closing time for the bars on the state’s ferries.

The Department of Transportation this week said it will begin the process of closing all six bars this winter.

DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow said the cost of paying bartenders was continuously outweighing alcohol sales. Under pressure from the Alaska Legislature to reduce expenses, the department decided to close the bars rather than reduce ferry service, he said.

“Do we leave bars and cut ferry service to communities, or remove bars and be able to limit those reductions?” Woodrow asked. “I think we would all agree we’d rather have more ferry service in place of bars.”

The closures will save the Alaska Marine Highway System $750,000 annually, Woodrow said.

Beer and wine sales will be moved into the cafeterias, but will be available only during the cafeterias’ limited hours.

Affected vessels include the Kennicott, Matanuska, Columbia, Tustumena, Malaspina and Taku.

The LeConte and Aurora – two smaller vessels that frequent Haines – will not carry beer and wine in their cafeterias while serving Southeast because they travel to dry communities.

Ferry bartender Tony Tengs, who works mostly on the Columbia, said he found out about the closures when a fellow ferry bartender texted him DOT’s press release.

“She texted me an expletive,” Tengs said.

The Columbia’s bar, on a ship making the three-day trip from Bellingham to Juneau, is a moneymaker, Tengs said. “I would wager it makes enough to pay our year-round wages, running that bar. It’s a profit-maker,” Tengs said.

The ferry system should look at closing bars that are losing money, but keep ones that bring in revenue, he said. “I think they are throwing the baby out with the bath water. I think they should keep the baby.”

Moving beer and wine into the cafeterias will cause problems, Tengs said. Passengers who go to the bar are frequently seeking sanctuary from screaming babies and energetic children, and parents who take their children into the cafeteria for a hamburger might not want the person sitting next to them slamming down a glass of wine, he said.

“It could create some discomfort for some people, both drinkers and nondrinkers,” Tengs said. “Customer satisfaction will go down.”

The state is working with the ferry workers’ union to move bar employees into other senior-level ferry jobs at similar pay grades.

Tengs said he doesn’t know what he will be doing, or if he will even stay with the ferry system. “This has really been a blow. It’s really got me thinking.”

DOT’s Woodrow said the state hasn’t ruled out reopening the bars if budgets become favorable. The state recently closed ferry gift shops and removed on-board interpreters in efforts to save money.


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