Planning commission debates local ferry service


June 20, 2019

In the midst of deep state budget cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System, the Haines Borough Planning Commission debated last week whether or not to support Skagway’s efforts to create a Lynn Canal ferry authority.

Last month, Skagway’s Marine Highway Ad Hoc Committee hired the research firm McDowell Group to study the viability of locally governed ferry service in Lynn Canal. Though a Lynn Canal ferry authority has been discussed for years, planning commissioner Rob Goldberg urged the assembly, the manager, and the Mayor to support it, and this week he brought the issue to the planning commission.

“Skagway is taking action. Haines has to do something. Haines has to at least say that we support what Skagway is doing,” said Goldberg. “So far the assembly has said nothing. The opportunities in this ferry authority are great. It’s a chance for us to define our own future, instead of having the future dumped on us by the state, and by the marine highway system.”

Goldberg motioned for the planning commission to recommend that the assembly formally support Skagway’s efforts.

HEDC executive director Margaret Friedenauer cautioned the commission. “The governor might say, ‘Great, go for a ferry authority, and we’re going to cut off upper Lynn Canal service,’” she said. “We don’t want to step away from the work of Southeast Conference (the economic development organization that advocates for regional ferry services at the state level). We also want to be part of a potential Lynn Canal ferry system,” said Friedenauer.

Friedenauer said that in her communications with Jan Wrentmore, the Skagway Marine Highway Ad Hoc Committee chair, Wrentmore did not want Haines’ involvement at this time.

Wentmore did not respond for comment.

But commissioners who had been invested in ferry service discussions over several years were disappointed with the results that Southeast Conference had achieved, and eager to participate in locally governed ferry service.

“I think that Southeast has faith in what the state is doing. I have no faith in what the state is doing,” said commissioner Lee Heinmiller. “I think our governor has plans to kill our ferry system in the next 18 months.”

“Southeast Conference (has) not been effective in advocating for the ferry system. They have not prevented the massive cuts that the legislature has proposed in the last few years,” said Goldberg.

“I’m actually offended by your comments,” said Mayor Jan Hill, who is a board member of Southeast Conference and former two-time president. “It’s a little discouraging and disheartening to hear the commissioner make (those) statements about Southeast Conference. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them,” said Hill.

Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables said, “We don’t necessarily trust government, we just happen to know who the owners of the system are, and are trying to work with them as closely as possible to make the system viable and sustainable.”

Venables said Southeast Conference took part in movements that prevented the shutdown of the ferry system earlier this year.

“We were part of the people making comments, at rallies, in discussions with individual legislators, house and senate transportation committees. We work with the governor’s office and with the commissioner’s office. We were very, very involved,” he said. Venables will be in Haines next Wednesday and Thursday.

At the planning commission meeting, Hill was amazed, she said, that commissioners were arguing in support of a Lynn Canal ferry authority, because “Margaret stated that when we said we’d like to be part of this effort, (Skagway) said no.”

“Of course, we support them getting more information, and several of us are talking with the Skagway group on several different levels,” said Hill. She noted that earlier that day, Hill and borough manager Debra Schnabel had met with HEDC and the Haines Chamber of Commerce to organize their efforts in preserving local ferry service.

“I worry that we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. I cannot speak to you about what the assembly’s position is on this particular topic because we have not had this particular discussion yet,” said Hill.

Commissioners acknowledged that a Lynn Canal ferry authority would take several years to establish. They denied Goldberg’s motion to make a recommendation to the assembly.

Commissioner Jessica Kayser-Forester, who voted to deny the motion, said, “I’m in total support of looking into this option. My ‘no’ vote didn’t mean that I wasn’t. It really seemed like (the issue) is being addressed by HEDC, the borough and the chamber of commerce. I felt that giving them the space and time, giving them more information is beneficial. Let’s allow them to do their jobs.”


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