Ferry furvor

Lawmaker uses marine highway to make a point

Posted: Monday, February 13, 2006

Angered at Washington state federal legislators’ support for efforts to block oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Rep. Kurt Olson (R-Kenai) has filed a resolution calling on the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to terminate ferry service to Washington ports.

The resolution requests that DOT limit the southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway to Hyder, Alaska, or Prince Rupert, British Columbia, rather than Bellingham, Wash.

“The Washington delegation has consistently voted against ANWR development in addition to other issues vital to Alaskans,” Olson said in a sponsor statement. “It seems only proper that if Alaska is to be denied tapping its resources due in part to the actions of the Washington delegation, we need not share the wealth we have with them.”

HB12, which has been referred to the House Transportation Committee, notes that the Alaska Marine Highway system provides a valuable service to that state and that Washington benefits financially from the relationship.

Olson said he really doesn’t expect his bill to result in the demise of ferry traffic between Washington and Alaska.

“It’s intent is to get people talking about our relationship with the state of Washington,” he said, adding that financially, it’s pretty one-sided.

“There are at least 130,000 jobs in Washington related to Alaska,” he said. “We are their fifth largest trading partner, and I think the first four are countries.”

Yet, he said, Alaska is seeing no support from Washington’s delegation on ANWR. He said he expects the bill to have committee hearings in the near future.

Compared to domestic airlines and cruise ships, Alaska ferries accommodated less than 1 percent of resident and visitor traffic coming to or leaving the state in recent years. According to state studies, between Oct. 1, 2003, and Sept. 30, 2004, domestic airlines saw 49 percent of all travelers, cruise ships 42 percent.

The amount of passenger traffic arriving in Alaska via ferries has dropped significantly since the early 1990s. For instance, in the summer of 1993, about 35,900 residents and visitors used ferries to come to Alaska. That compared to 697,500 who flew and 247,000 who came by cruise ship.

The summer of 2004 saw only 22,800 people use the ferry system to come to Alaska, while airline use had grown to more than 1 million, and cruise ship traffic to 712,400.

Still, the ferry traffic is important, especially to those travelers seeking a more leisurely mode of travel than an airplane at less than the cost of a luxury liner ticket.

Robin Taylor, DOT deputy commissioner for marine transportation, said he couldn’t see the state ever actually ending ferry traffic to Washington.

Although passenger numbers are lower than in the past, Taylor said instituting a 30-percent winter schedule discount has boosted winter ferry travel significantly.

“We have been very pleased,” he said.

Taylor said he recognized Olson’s intent and agreed there are issues that need discussing about the Washington delegation’s positions on issues important to Alaska.

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