Hakai Magazine

Alaska State Ferry leaving Homer in Kachemak Bay in Southcentral, Alaska
The MV Tustumena, aka the “Trusty Tusty,” departs Homer, Alaska. In June, the ferry was shut down following an outbreak of COVID-19 among the crew members. Photo by Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

COVID-19 Is Taxing Alaska’s Beleaguered Ferry System

Between the pandemic, an aging fleet, and political flux, Alaska’s far-reaching ferry system has fallen on hard times.

Authored by

by Tim Lydon

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When the MV Tustumena departed the seaside community of Homer, Alaska, in early June, it carried hopes that the state’s beleaguered ferry system might be returning to life. Like most Alaska ferries, the “Trusty Tusty” had been out of service for months, so when the ship eased from Homer’s dock, goods and people were once again moving along the coast.

But that optimism was fleeting. Four days later, when the MV Tustumena reached Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, a crew member tested positive for COVID-19. Most passengers were evacuated—others quarantined—and when the ship reached Homer, six more crew members tested positive. In response, Alaska’s Department of Transportation (DOT) decided to cancel MV Tustumena sailings indefinitely.

“After the crew outbreak on [the] Tustumena in June, we had to reboot and reevaluate,” says DOT public information officer Sam Dapcevich.

But COVID-19 is only the latest setback for the integral transportation system, which connects over 30 communities along Alaska’s largely roadless southern coast. Since taking office in early 2019, Alaska governor Mike Dunleavey has slashed ferry budgets, grounding nearly the entire fleet last winter—an unprecedented move in the system’s 57-year history. Aging vessels are another issue.

“The system is quite broken,” says Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, a regional economic development group that advocates for the ferry system. Venables cautions against blaming any one cause, instead calling it “a storm that’s come upon us over time.”

That storm has swamped Alaska’s celebrated ferry system. Its vessels, each named for an Alaska glacier, carry passengers and freight along a tortuous coast stretching from the Aleutian Islands to Bellingham, Washington. Cars and semis fill the lower levels, while an eclectic mix of passengers—tourists, contractors, high school basketball players heading for games in small towns—roam the upper decks.

“The social fabric of our coastal communities has been knitted together for decades by the ferry system,” says Venables. “Its value cannot be overstated.”

Industries also grow up around the ferries, explains Venables, including tourism and commercial fishing enterprises that pump revenue into local and state economies. A 2016 report credits the ferries with supporting 1,700 local jobs and US $104-million in wages, contributing to a 2-to-1 return on the state’s annual investment.

Those returns bring familiar benefits in Cordova, a community of 2,100 perched far from roads in southcentral Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In a 2019 letter protesting cancellation of Cordova’s winter service, Mayor Clay Koplin called the ferries a key link for the fishing industry that efficiently and cost-effectively transports personnel, boats, gear, and fresh salmon.

The ferries are also vital to Indigenous communities of Alaska, says Dennis Gray, Jr., city administrator and former mayor of Hoonah, a predominantly Tlingit village of 800 in southeast Alaska. Gray says the ferries are essential for transporting elders for medical care, and for delivering groceries and other necessities that are hard to come by in remote villages, including those on Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Islands. They also provide accessible and affordable transportation for people attending traditional koo.éex’ gatherings and other ceremonies.

Without ferries, rural communities are limited to barges, charter boats, and small planes—expensive and frequently unreliable alternatives, especially in Alaska’s poor weather. When service was cut to southeast Alaska last winter, supply chains broke down, prompting Juneau residents to hold food drives for rural communities.

“It’s not a luxury but a necessity for us,” Gray says of the ferries.

But not all Alaskans see it that way. Gray says much of the state’s population and political power lie in southcentral Alaska, where a network of roads connects Anchorage to other communities. Sympathies for the state-subsidized ferries can run low, especially as legislators watch millions of dollars being sunk into breakdown-prone ships—half of which have been operating for over four decades.

Venables sees another political dimension. Alaska has cycled through six governors in the last two decades. For the ferries, the revolving door of administrations brings shifting approaches and delayed responses to long-standing problems such as declining ridership.

For his part, Governor Dunleavey in 2019 proposed privatizing the ferries, an idea that a January report called infeasible. He has since assembled a stakeholder group to recommend solutions by September 2020. Indigenous people, who have lived along the coast for millennia and whose cultures help draw tourists to the state, have objected to their being left out of the group.

Venables, who is a member of the stakeholder group, thinks the root of the problem is that the ferry system lacks a long-term plan and a governance body that can function at “arm’s length from politics.” He says such a body could raise revenue beyond passenger fares and more deftly plan for repairs or replacement of aging ships. Facing similar challenges in 2003, British Columbia’s ferry system transitioned to a public-private corporation. A similar model governs Alaska’s railroad and university systems, and some say it might be right for the ferries, too.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to impact Alaska’s ferries. The pandemic has reduced the summer fleet to five ships operating with passenger capacity and new safety protocols following the June infections aboard the MV Tustumena, which returned to service in July. So far, those enhanced measures appear to be working. Since the ferries resumed their routes, only one passenger has tested positive for COVID-19 and ferry officials say the new protocols prevented spread to others.

“We believe Alaskans are delighted to have ferries operating this summer, especially considering the circumstances,” says Dapcevich. “We’re hopeful that passengers and crew will continue following [safety] protocols and guidelines so ferry service can carry on without COVID-19 related disruptions.”