Drivers will continue to travel free on the Alaska Marine Highway, at least through next April. That’s according to a schedule released by the state-run ferry system on Friday.
After the winter 2013-2014 ferry schedule concludes on April 30, 2014, passengers driving a car onto the ferry will have to pay for a ticket for themselves. A separate, 30 percent discount for round-trip tickets will disappear earlier, on Oct. 1, 2013.
The ferry system said in a statement that the move is to make up for a smaller budget. The state cut the Marine Highway’s operating budget by about $3.5 million for the next fiscal year.
“Every department in the state received a reduction in their operating budget. This is the amount that was given to AMHS,” said Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Marine Highway. “The Department of Transportation had cuts across the board, and this is just AMHS’s amount for their operating budget.”
The Marine Highway also plans to save money by returning the fast ferry Fairweather and the M/V Taku back to service a little later in the spring. The Fairweather is undergoing a massive overhaul this winter. It includes new engines, which are the result of a settlement between the state and the engine makers, after the Faireweather and its sister ship, the Chenega, experienced repeated engine problems.
For Sitka, the schedule includes approximately one northbound sailing and two southbound sailings every week. That goes against the city’s wishes for two boats north and two boats south every week. A letter from the city to the Marine Highway in April protests the plan, saying “one northbound ferry per week for seven months severely restricts Sitka’s use of the ferry system.”
Woodrow says geography is definitely a factor in Sitka’s schedule.
“It’s not on a line-to-line route, as a lot of communities are along the Marine Highway System, especially in Southeast Alaska,” Woodrow said. “For instance, if you’re going from Ketchikan north, you hit Wrangell and Petersburg in pretty easy concession. But when you have to go out to Sitka, you have to jog left instead of continuing on. It takes time to get there, so it’s difficult to schedule all the ships to get to that direction and back in enough time.”
The complete winter schedule is online at ferryalaska.com.
The ferry system’s summer 2014 schedule will come out sometime in the fall, after the state asks for public comment.