Ferry service cuts threaten to strand residents
November 7, 2019
The Alaska Marine Highway System has reduced winter service to Haines yet again—this time to one ferry a week from November to March. The state decision burdens local business, leaves some ferry workers filing for unemployment, strands school clubs from travelling to competitions, and frustrates winter travelers who must now hang on the hopes of a clear flying day.
On Nov. 1, AMHS announced that maintenance for the 45-year-old LeConte came in $2.8 million over estimates. Without the budget to overhaul two vessels, work is stalled while the state compares repair costs against that of the 44-year-old Aurora. A decision is expected Nov. 15, according to a state press release.
“Beginning Oct. 31…. Haines and Skagway will receive service once per week and Hoonah will receive service twice per month,” the press release read. “There will be no AMHS service to Angoon, Tenakee, Pelican and Gustavus.”
In June, the Legislature approved a $44 million cut to the ferry system. Loss of funding, paired with significant overhauls, threatens to isolate the Southeast this winter.
The Matanuska will be the lone vessel serving Haines most Saturdays through March, when either the LeConte or the Aurora is scheduled to come back online. The ferry system is exploring possible alternatives to continue service while the LeConte and Aurora are offline.
Several Haines residents learned the news when they received phone calls cancelling bookings for upcoming ferries out of Haines.
“I got a call around noon that the LeConte was being pulled for servicing and would I like to reschedule,” said Cheryl Stickler, who had booked a trip down south. “I don’t know how you’re supposed to do that (on the spot).”
The new sailing schedule has flustered many. Stickler said she will lose money on change fees for her flights plus a nonrefundable hotel room, and has to decide between cutting her vacation short, or risk losing a week of work.
Vanessa Salmon, whose family of four had planned a trip to Mexico this winter, is looking at a similar problem.
“To change my flight for four people to the new ferry schedule was going to cost $3,700 for the same destination on different dates,” Salmon said. But, she added, “It’s a vacation, not an emergency.”
Judy Erekson had a medical procedure planned in Juneau later this month she will now have to reschedule. She’s out $900 for an Airbnb rental she’d booked around the appointment, inviting her family to spend Juneau in Thanksgiving with her. Now, there’s not a ferry home to Haines for eight days after Thanksgiving.
“It’s hard not to be angry,” Erekson said. “This is just the worst- and I’m not as sick as a lot of people.” Erekson said she will reschedule her appointment in Anchorage, where she has plans to travel next month.
Anchorage medical student Elsie Fullerton will be crossing her fingers for clear flying weather to come back for the holidays, after her ferry was cancelled.
“I have mandatory attendance, and I have to be back (to Anchorage) on January second,” Fullerton said. “I made my flight reservation during the PFD sale so that I could go home during that two-week window. If I can’t make it out on that flight, I’m going to have a whole new set of problems to solve.”
Alaska Seaplanes, the only commercial airline with flights to and from Haines, expects to see an uptick in demand moving into the winter, said manager Carl Ramseth.
“We will continue to have three scheduled roundtrip flights to Haines on a daily basis through the winter, and will be poised to add more seats to all our scheduled destinations when there is demand,” he said. On Sunday, the airline made nine roundtrip flights to Haines after poor weather grounded planes the previous two days. “With six turbine-powered, wheeled aircrafts, we can provide quite a bit of lift to get caught up in a hurry when the weather gets things backed up,” he said.
But winter weather has the potential to ground planes, which could interfere with an out-of-town work schedule.
Like many mine workers who live in Haines, Nathan Piper travels to Juneau once a month for work at the Kensington mine. He said the reduction to ferry services will make flying riskier in the winter.
“There was always that Monday evening ferry which was a safe bet to get to work on Tuesday,” Piper said. Now, he anticipates leaving for his shifts earlier and spending more time in Juneau—all out-of-pocket costs.
Included among the list of people fighting from being stranded in Haines are the ferry workers themselves.
AMHS onboard employee Sarah Roark said she’s been feeling the effects of dwindling service for months, since she relies on ferries departing from Haines to take her to work in Juneau for free. “This summer, there wasn’t a boat the day before my crew change,” she said. “We’ve been flying a lot and luckily haven’t missed work because of it.” In the winter, she said, it’s only a matter of time before she’s weathered in and misses a crew change.
The Inland Boatman’s Union (IBU), the largest ferry-workers union in Alaska, anticipates 290 lost positions with the reduction of service, according to regional director Trina Arnold.
Roark anticipates working much less this winter, given the reduced sailings. “I’ve been getting less than full-time since September, with only the Malaspina or the Matanuska running,” she said. “I have already filed for unemployment.”
On the ground, the state cut $2 million from terminals, causing the Haines terminal to lay off three people, said manager Fuzzy von Stauffenberg. She said that remaining full-time employees will continue their normal schedule despite less of a demand at work.
Scrambling, too, are six different Haines school groups that rely on the ferry for competitions.
The Haines Glacier Bears basketball teams have rearranged their schedule to play exclusively home games in December and January, according to superintendent Roy Getchell. “The changes will certainly require us, and teams traveling to Haines, to re-evaluate original plans,” he said.
The Petersburg boys’ and girls’ basketball teams were scheduled to come to Haines in January. “Typically, how we get there is we take Alaska Airlines to Juneau and then take the ferry from Juneau to Haines,” the school’s athletic information clerk Marsha Sandhofer said. Now, without a Friday ferry, “we’re going to have to totally revamp it,” she said. “If we do have to take Alaska Seaplanes, that will mean that our number of players will be way lower. It might mean cutting the trip out altogether. It might mean dropping one of our other trips instead. We don’t budget for individual trips; we budget for the season.”
Metlakatla’s athletic director Adam Krick said the school is planning on making its December plans to Haines work, though it’s not ideal. They are scrapping ferry plans to potentially fly, or charter an Allen Marine ship for its December games in Haines.
“It is a lot more expensive than what we were intending for a conference game,” Krick said. “I’ve already booked our air tickets from Alaska Airlines (to Juneau), so now I’m going to have to rebook those to match a different avenue. I feel pretty bad for Haines right now.”
In February, Getchell said the teams will double up on away games as they did last year, each a week at a time. “It should work with the ferry schedule. It keeps expenses lower, and actually saves on the loss of classroom time,” he said. “We’re trying to work as smart as we can around a very difficult issue and I think we did pretty well, as long as things don’t unexpectedly change again.”
Other teams, like the high school speech team, Community Youth Development, the Redneck Robo Hobos, and Haines Dolphins swimmers are still exploring options.
Dolphins’ coach Jackie St. Clair said the ferry schedule will make it incredibly difficult to travel to meets in Southeast Alaska. “I am looking at meets up north in Fairbanks and Anchorage instead of meets in Southeast, since it may be easier to drive hundreds of miles rather than deal with the ferry,” she said. “The Juneau team suggested chartering an Allen Marine boat to bring kids up to Haines when we do have a meet, though, so I imagine we will have to be creative this year when it comes to travel.”
The Redneck Robo Hobos, the Lego league team, may miss its one-time event, the state competition in Anchorage this winter, group leader Patty Brown said. “It’s demoralizing, frankly,” Brown said. “If we spend time trying to spend money to charter planes, then that eats up time we have trying to get ready for the tournament.” She said it’s possible for the kids to Skype into the competition, but that robs the kids from the experience. “A huge part of the event is interacting with other kids and being able to present to the judges,” she said.
Tracy Harmon, director of the Haines Chamber of Commerce, said the Alaska Chamber’s annual conference in Girdwood last week included a vote to advocate in support of the ferry system. Harmon is hopeful that lobbying at the state level is positive news.
“One of our solutions would be advocating for the Tazlina online,” she said.
At a commerce level, disrupted service has affected shipment costs for both Olerud’s and Haines Brewing Company, who previously shipped goods on the ferry and now have to pay a higher price with Alaska Marine Lines.
At Olerud’s, an increased cost to cold drinks has been passed onto consumers, Tyler Swinton said.
At the brewery, owner Paul Wheeler said that products coming and going, like kegs and carbon dioxide tanks, cost about 30 percent more to ship. That’s because AML charges a flat shipping rate in addition to the cost of the product, an added expense that was previously avoided by using a private company on the ferry.
Next summer’s sailing schedule might also be affected by the potential loss of a second vessel, the Malaspina, on Dec. 2.
“The Malaspina was scheduled for overhaul this winter, and a preliminary investigation revealed extensive steel replacement was needed,” the state wrote in a press release on Oct. 24. “The repair work for the 56-year-old vessel was estimated to be at least $16 million, this is in excess of the available budget and cannot be completed at this time.”
Robert Venables, director of Southeast Conference, without irony, calls the state’s announcement “a perfect storm.”
“The philosophy really comes down to, if you have the money, do you continuously spend it on Band-Aids?” he said. “Here we are caught between the old system that needs to be replaced, and not having a clear idea on where the vision lies for the marine highway system.”
Next month, the Dunleavy administration is expected to release its $250,000 ferry privatization study, Venables said. The study was originally due mid-October.