Because our highway in Southeast Alaska runs over water, its importance is far greater than a conventional road system because it operates on a limited schedule and each user pays for the privilege.
Unquestionably, serious belt tightening in government spending is called for if we hope to close the fiscal gap.
However, the $6,649,000 operational shortfall facing the Alaska Marine Highway System for fiscal year 2003 will result in a far more costly outcome.
Budget-reducing measures proposed by state officials include cutting the number of trips made by the Columbia, Taku and Aurora, and reducing the fleet from nine to seven vessels by mothballing or selling the Bartlett and Malaspina. The result will be the loss of 67 operating weeks in Southeast waters for FY03. Additional mitigation will come through a 10 percent surcharge in passenger and cabin rates and 5 percent for vehicles.
Capt. Bob Doll, Southeast regional director of the state Department of Transportation, estimates that the price increases will result in the loss of 4,000 passengers in FY03. The reductions mentioned above produce the net effect of reducing marine highway revenues for FY03 by an estimated $4,585,000, so it is easy to see the diseconomy that exists just on the surface.
Below the surface lie much deeper impacts that will cause long-term, irreversible damage to the already lagging economy of Southeast Alaska. At greatest risk are the small rural communities of Angoon, Hoonah, Kake, Tenakee and Pelican. If the budget shortfall sticks, these communities will see no service this October and 50 percent fewer dockings for the remainder of FY03.
Larger communities also will be negatively affected. Juneau, Petersburg and Wrangell depend on the marine highway to transport refrigerated vans laden with fresh fish to connection points on the road system. Market prices for wild Alaska fish are so depressed that it is no longer practical to ship much of the product by air.
Additionally, destination tourism throughout Southeast Alaska will be harmed by reduced service. Economies grow and die in proportion to how well their transportation infrastructure is developed. Southeast Alaska is made up of mostly small communities rooted in economies linked to timber, mining and commercial fishing. The towns mentioned above have lost their economic underpinnings over the past 20 years, and this is a poor time to be cutting the thin transportation links that now exist.
To do so will only accelerate the exodus to larger, distant communities and further urbanize Alaska, thus eroding the culture, character and intrinsic attraction of this unique part of world.
The Alaska Marine Highway System is in the midst of a long-needed overhaul and a movement toward more cost efficiencies. In the meantime support from the Legislature is desperately needed to keep the marine highway afloat. DOT officials recognize that a road along the Lynn Canal will someday help alleviate the transportation bottleneck in our region and boost the long-term viability of the AMHS.
The same federal highway funds used to subsidize the road system up north subsidize Southeast Alaska's marine highway system. Maybe our friends up north could relate to the impact by imagining what it would be like if a section of the Glenn Highway were shut down.
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