PUBLISHED: 4:58 PM on Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Ferries key to Southeast communities
If you're reading this, you almost certainly live in Southeast Alaska. Or visit the Southeast regularly.

Either way, there's a pretty good chance you're traveling here today or will be traveling here this month.

And so you have a stake in transportation in Southeast Alaska--and in the future of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

As much as we now depend on air travel, and may some day depend on roads, ferries are still an integral link to and among most of our Southeast communities.

That's all the more true this spring, as the state abandons plans to build the Gravina Island Bridge in Ketchikan, pretty well ensuring that residents, and anybody flying into or out of Ketchikan, will continue riding ferries there for the foreseeable future.

There are challenges to running an efficient ferry system.

Ferries wear out. Maintenance is expensive. So is staffing.

There are no one-dimensional answers-including replacing all ferries with roads.

The state's most comprehensive plan to date, drafted in 2004, to try to solve the myriad of transportation issues we face here, is all about roads.

That plan proposes to build more roads. Lots of roads. With risk of oversimplifying, the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan finished in 2004 focuses future plans on building new roads (they call them "highway corridors") throughout the Southeast.

To quote from the DOT website:

"The plan identifies 34 essential transportation and utility corridors to be reserved and protected to meet future transportation needs. The ultimate highway development plan ... is to construct roads through all of these transportation corridors. Development of the corridors is necessary to efficiently connect communities to the regional transportation system, establish a regional power grid, and optimize service to the public.

"Following completion of highway links serving Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka, the primary roles of ferries in Southeast Alaska would be...:

• Continued operation of mainline service out of Bellingham and between Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and Prince William Sound.

• Expanded operations of new fast vehicle ferries serving Juneau, Petersburg, and Sitka. Fast ferry service is planned between Ketchikan and Petersburg, and a new southern gateway shuttle ferry is planned between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert....

• Shuttle ferry connections for through highways links.

• Inter-Island Ferry Authority ferry connections to Prince of Wales Island via Hollis to Ketchikan and ferry service connecting Coffman Cove, Wrangell, and Petersburg.

• Ferry connections to less populous communities that remain isolated from the land highway network. The plan includes a new airport at Angoon, public seaplane floats at Edna Bay and Naukati, and continued improvement of the region's 12 airports and 33 public seaplane floats."

That's the plan.

But regardless of when that plan becomes reality, we need to take care of the horse we're still riding. We need to maintain the ferries we have.

We have to look beyond an artificial balance sheet between the rising cost of the ferry system and the revenue it generates primarily through fares. Costs will be higher than revenue. Whether run by private enterprise or government, ferries will likely never pay for themselves.

We need to relearn that transportation is not about roads, or ferries. It is about moving people who live here in the most cost-effective, convenient way possible.

An old friend likes to say that railroads lost the transportation franchise for the same reason....they fell in love with trains and forgot the people.

For example, it is time to wonder if smaller ferries running more often make more sense than the mega-boats we're running now.

Most communities have their own transportation problems. But if you're tried heading in or out of Anchorage to the MatSu in a snow storm, you'll realize roads are never a perfect solution either.

While waiting for roads, we need to maintain the alternative we have and will need for many years to come. Regardless of the future of new highways, Southeast Alaska needs a viable marine ferry system now and for the foreseeable future.

Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly and advertising director of the Juneau Empire. Email him at