Bill Thomas

GUEST COMMENTARY: Short- and long-term fixes for ferry system in the works

While I know the novel coronavirus has rightly captured our attention, I think it’s important that we don’t forget the Marine Highway. In recent months, I’ve read disappointing reports of communities throughout the Inside Passage being unable to obtain food and vital supplies. Having represented Hoonah, Angoon, and Kake in the legislature for many years, I found it surprising that these self-reliant communities were supposedly struggling so severely. But after calling a few local friends, I learned the situation was far different than what some were representing. The people were not starving. Chartered barges have continued to deliver goods and supplies to Hoonah and Angoon; landing craft were quick to restore depleted grocery shelves. One friend told me they are gatherers and have been ready since November. After the weather cleared, I visited these communities myself and was relieved to find they were doing fine given the circumstances. That said, the outpouring of support from Petersburg and elsewhere was greatly appreciated. The willingness to help each other shows how much things have changed during my 72 years in the Southeast. Of course, most places in Alaska and the country are now facing supply issues because of the coronavirus, but these temporary stocking issues are unrelated to the ferry system. None of this is to understate the importance of fixing the Alaska Marine Highway System. Earlier this year I spent nine weeks cooped up in Juneau as ferry cancellations and weather-related flight delays prevented me from going home to Haines. And while I know our communities are home to many generations of skilled gatherers of both land and sea, I realize that ferry service is integral to modern life. Thankfully, service is already being restored. The brand-new Tazlina is providing service to Angoon, Hoonah, and upper Panhandle communities like Haines and Skagway with other ferries soon to follow. Emergency funding has been requested by the governor, and a work group is developing a detailed, long-term plan. But it’s important to keep in mind that the Marine Highway’s problems built up over decades. Way back in 1963, I sailed with my future wife, Joyce Marie, aboard the very first ferry into Alaska (we were flown down for the inaugural voyage alongside Governor Egan and the Chilkat Dancers from Haines). That vessel, the Malaspina, remained in service until just a few months ago. The mechanical deterioration that placed it out of commission happened over many years. Likewise, the LeConte and Aurora, built in 1974 and 1977, respectively, suffer from years of rust damage. Long-term planning has been equally problematic. Beginning in the 1970s, we stopped building boats for 21 years. When we did construct several aluminum ferries in the early 2000s, they were a bad fit for Alaskan waters. Clearly, we need to take a step back and develop a sustainable, thoughtful course for our ferry system. Other troubles, like the breakdown of the Matanuska’s brand-new reduction gear and the bulkhead failure and electrical issues aboard the Tazlina, can only be chalked up to misfortune. As a commercial fisherman of some 50 years, I’ve seen firsthand how unexpected setbacks often occur at the worst of times. Fortunately, most folks I spoke with during my recent trip were boat people and understood these unpredictabilities. Even this virus is working against us as worried shoppers clean out store shelves. But much like hoarding toilet paper is unlikely to slow the pandemic, spreading exaggerated information about impacted communities isn’t going to cure the marine highway. Everyone is hard at work on short-term fixes, and long-term solutions are on the way. We need to work together instead of blaming each other for a problem that’s nearly as old as our state. My good friend Clay Koplin of Cordova said it best: I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. Bill Thomas of Haines represented Southeast Alaska in the Alaska House from 2004 to 2012.
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