The subtitle of the press release announcing the Alaska Marine Highway System winter schedule tells most of the story.
“Schedule provides reduced service due to low revenues,” it reads under the title “AMHS Winter 2020-2021 Schedule is Open for Booking.”
COVID-19 travel restrictions have decreased revenues significantly. Department of Transportation spokesperson Sam Dapcevich said revenue was down about $45 million this fiscal year compared to last year.
Each month, he said, the system typically makes $6 million to $7 million. This year the system made $3.2 million in July, $2.8 million in August and $1.5 million in September.
Plus, the system has already suffered budget cuts from the state and the fleet’s vessels are aging. All that adds up to far fewer ferry sailings in Southeast Alaska.
Kodiak will not see ferries between Jan. 2, when the M/V Kennicott departs for Cordova, and March 25, when it arrives from Whittier. The M/V Tustumena will be out of service from Sept. 30 to April 16, when she will arrive in Ouzinkie.
With only half a stabilizing fin, the Tustumena would not be equipped to brave the trip in winter weather. That means that between October and January, Kodiak will only see the Kennicott every two weeks, a much-reduced service from previous years.
But there is some good news for the archipelago. There will be ferries in Port Lions this winter after all. Not many, and not for the whole winter, but in the final winter ferry schedule, the Kennicott will make twice-monthly stops in the rural community from Oct. 8 to Dec. 31 on its way to Kodiak.
In the proposed ferry schedule released last month, Port Lions and Ouzinkie were scheduled to miss service from September to April, as were Valdez, Prince Rupert, Chenega Bay, Tatitlek and Seldovia.
The people of Port Lions let AMHS hear about it.
“We pelted them with phone calls and emails and comments,” Port Lions Mayor Dorinda Kewan said.
In 2013, the community helped construct a $16 million ferry dock big enough to accommodate the Kennicott. The state had paid $12 million, and local and federal sources kicked in the rest. So it was strange to see the AMHS bypass the village in the proposed schedule.
“It was specifically designed to accommodate the Tusty and the Kennicott,” Kewan said. “That’s one of the things we’ve been confused by. When the Tusty’s not working, we don’t understand why it wouldn’t be automatic to schedule the Kennicott to serve us.”
It’s still not business as usual, Kewan said, when the Tustumena would show up twice a week to Port Lions. But it’s better than nothing. Ouzinkie was not so lucky, as its dock can only handle a boat the size of the Tustumena.
“I suppose some folks might be disappointed in it, but it’s actually more than what we asked for,” Kewan said. “We’d offer a big thank you to the DOT for making it happen.”
State Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) said she had something to do with the reinstatement of Port Lions service as well. She made calls to the upper reaches of the Alaska government and things changed.
“I told them I was the representative of that district and I was taking the lack of ferry service personally. It wasn’t a tolerable situation,” Stutes said. “There was no reason for them not to have service with the ferry coming so close.”
Port Lions will get some service, as will Seldovia, which Stutes also represents. She said the schedules could still be modified in the future to serve more communities this winter.
“The service is reduced, but it’s a start. And some service is better than no service,” she said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for refinement. We took the first step in getting service restored.”