By Larry Persily
Wrangell Sentinel 

State ferry traffic into Haines down significantly from a decade ago


August 11, 2022

More than 31,000 passengers a year boarded a state ferry in Haines 2010 through 2015, and more than 31,000 a year walked or drove off the ships during that six-year period.

From 36,134 boardings in fiscal 2014 (July 2013 to June 2014), Haines boardings fell to about 32,991 in 2017, 24,146 in fiscal year 2019, and then crashed with the pandemic.

Passenger counts for 2022, which ended June 30, are unclear. An Alaska Marine Highway System spokesperson did not provide data for 2021-2022 by press time.

Vehicle traffic into Haines decreased by 20% from 2010 to 2019.

Even before the pandemic, ferry service to Haines was in decline, falling 61% from 641 port calls in 2011 to 249 in 2019, making it hard on school sports teams, families, vacationers and other travelers to schedule trips.

Haines is not alone in losing ferry traffic, but its numbers are among the worst for Southeast ports of call, according to the state’s traffic count.

In 1992, 372,000 passengers rode aboard the state ferries in Southeast. Numbers have declined since then, dropping to 152,000 in pre-pandemic 2019 and crashing in pandemic 2020 to 43,723.

The steep drop in travelers when the pandemic hit, plus deep budget cuts in the first year of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, resulted in vessels being held out of service to save money.

Even before the pandemic, Southeast port calls dropped from 5,290 in 2011 to 3,718 in 2019.

Crew shortages have hampered the ferry system, too.

The “fiscal turmoil” and schedule cuts of recent years have made the hiring problem worse, said Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Prospective hires look for dependable work and shy away from jobs that could be at risk with the next cutback, he said.

That adds to the loss of passengers, Stedman said. “When you don’t run a predictable schedule, you lose market share.” The senator was in Wrangell last week on his reelection campaign. Stedman said he worries it will be difficult for the ferry system to recover lost travelers — whether locals or visitors — even if its schedule improves.

Passenger and vehicle fares have covered less than half of the ferry system operating budget for the past 15 years, with state general fund dollars and federal money filling the gap.

And although this year’s budget for the Marine Highway System provides enough funding to restore more service, crew shortages and hiring problems have prevented the state from meeting its proposed summer schedule.

“Staff are burning out due to national staffing shortages in the maritime industry, this is our foremost critical problem,” according to a state Department of Transportation report for the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board, which met last Friday.

“The shortage of qualified crew members threatens the ability” to operate the ships, the report said. “Being short-staffed, vessels are frequently at risk of going into layup,” or running “with a crew operating by extensive holdovers and significant overtime status, leading to low morale.”

Since 2019, the ferry system has lost 357 employees due to resignations, retirement and firings, while adding just 211 new hires, according to the report for the new advisory board comprised of members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.

Transportation Department management repeatedly testified to legislative committees this past spring about crew shortages of as many as 300 workers for full staffing.


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