PUBLISHED: 3:54 PM on Wednesday, March 19, 2008
No roads, no problem
Five questions on the Alaska Marine Highway
With no exit roads in the majority of the Southeast Alaskan communities, the Alaska Marine Highway System has been one the regions most reliable modes of transportation for more than 60 years. As winter weather wanes into spring, more travelers and adventures will soon journey the open seas. Roger Wetherell, chief communications officer with the State of Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, talks about the marine highway's past and its path toward the future.

What is the history behind the marine highway and how has it grown since its inception?

Jay Beedle photo
  The marine vessel Matanuska sails the ocean with Lions Head Mountain in the background. The Alaska Marine Highway has been operating since 1942, when only one vessel existed.
The men and women who operate today's Alaska Marine Highway System do so with pride because the system boasts a rich history predating Alaska statehood. After the Alaska Highway was completed in 1942, a privately owned ferry system known as the Chilkoot Motorship Lines began linking the highway between Haines and Juneau six years later by providing ferry service.

The Alaska territorial government purchased the company's only ship, the Chilkoot, for $40,000 in the summer of 1951. Just four years later, the same government proposed replacing the vessel with a new ship capable of carrying 59 passengers and 15 vehicles. It only took two years for the new ferry Chilkat to join the service following its christening. Less than two years after the Chilkat's maiden voyage, President Eisenhower signed Alaska into statehood.

Initially known as the Division of Marine Transportation in 1963, the system was officially named AMHS 20 years later. In 1963, AMHS began providing service to Southeast Alaska communities, and a year later, with the arrival of the Tustumena, sailings to Homer, Seldovia and Kodiak became part of the scheduling. During inaugural port calls in Ketchikan and Juneau, the system's newest ship then, the Malaspina, was greeted by some 7,000 well wishers.

  Roger Wetherell
The system continued to add more vessels to its fleet, but following the acquisition of the Aurora in 1977, no additions were made to the fleet for the next twenty years. Few changes were made to the list of communities visited by Alaska State ferries during this period. Chignik, Unalaska (Dutch Harbor), Cold Bay, and Hyder were added as stops in the 1980s. Seattle service was replaced with service to Bellingham in 1989, thus shortening the sailing time by ten hours. In 1990, the motor vessel Chilkat, Alaska's first state ferry was sold.

In 2004, the fast vehicle ferry Fairweather joined the fleet followed by the 235-foot catamaran sister ship, the Chenega. AMHS also added the 180-foot Lituya to its list of ships in 2004. Lituya provides transportation between Ketchikan and Metlakatla.

Do you expect to see an increase in passengers during the spring and summer months to areas in Southeast Alaska?

Typically, ridership increases as spring gives way to the summer months with July posting the greatest spike in rider and vehicle embarkation.

photo courtesy of Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
  The ferry system's fleet includes 11 ships which operate year-round throughout Southeast Alaska.
Will there be any changes to routes or schedules in the upcoming months?

There will be schedule adjustments which AMHS has already publicized in an effort to keep its customers well informed. For instance, Tustumena's sailings will be suspended for an estimated 10 days in April while the vessel undergoes a mandatory ship's inspection. In order to maintain service, AMHS decided to use the Kennicott as a replacement vessel on the routes serving Southwest Alaska communities. The Tustumena will remain at a dry dock facility from April 18 through April 28 for a mandatory ship's inspection. The inspection is required by the U.S. Coast Guard. We've also implemented an early May trip along the Aleutian Chain. The originally scheduled Aleutian Chain trips filled up very quickly this year, and we've received requests to add more sailings. So in an effort to meet the public's request for additional sailings, we are offering an additional trip during the first week of May. Tustumena will depart Homer May 6 and proceed to and stop at the ports it regularly serves along the route.

How many vessels are currently in use?

The Alaska Marine Highway System currently operates 11 ships in its fleet and provides year round ferry service throughout Southeast and Southwest Alaska. Service also extends to Prince Rupert, British Columbia and Bellingham, Wash. totaling 33 coastal communities in all. Incidentally, credit for the hardworking folks who operate the ships, terminals and shore side facilities never seem to receive the appropriate credit for their accomplishments as they safely operate our aging fleet-especially during harsh winter weather.

Are there any future projects, additions or changes in store for the future?

Yes. The Alaska Marine Highway System is taking a close look at itself and analyzing the current state of the system. AMHS is committed to charting the future for an efficient, dependable, safe and sustainable transportation system. That's why AMHS is currently pursuing its master plan to help the organization improve its processes. AMHS is very excited about the new enhancements it's implementing that include upgrading the reservation system, adding 24/7 Wi-Fi internet access aboard all 11 of its ships and a state-of-the-art point of sale vessel cash register systems. The AMHS team is eager to see what's in store for the future and what it can provide to its customers.