This afternoon on my walk I encountered a rare and endangered species in Sitka, an Alaska Marine Highway ship.
The state has proposed a reduced ferry schedule to save money. The schedule includes laying up three ferries all next summer. The state will have to pay for insurance and a skeleton crew to lay up those ferries. Money spent that will provide NO service to Alaska communities. The new summer schedule has a ferry visit Sitka only twice a week, once northbound and once southbound. Other Southeast Communities like Wrangell and Petersburg get 6 ferries a week. Juneau and Ketchikan get more. But the biggest insult is that there is a special ferry for the Whitehorse Dustball Tournament but none for the Sitka Mudball Tournament. Canada gets more consideration than Sitka.
State Sen. Peter Micciche from Soldotna sponsored a Legislative Listening Session on the ferry system in Sitka this week. He brought along Captain John Falvy, General Manager of the ferry system. Sitkans did a good job outlining how devastating these cuts would be to Sitka, affecting school sports and activities, village residents seeking medical care in our hospitals, Native Alaskans visiting relatives in villages, visitors coming to our music festivals and fine arts camps, and summer independent travelers who keep hotels, campgrounds and B&Bs in business. State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins produced a graph showing the number of port departures by year for Sitka that shows how dramatic the proposed fall is. My testimony took a different tack.
“Talkeetna is on a spur road off the Parks Highway just as Sitka is a spur off the Mainline Marine Highway. The Alaska railroad makes daily stops both north and southbound in Talkeetna in the summer and weekly stops in the winter. Talkeetna is considerably smaller than Sitka. Since the state needs to save money why not stop plowing the Talkeetna road in the winter? Weekly train service each way can adequately serve Talkeetna. In the summer stop maintenance on the Talkeetna road. It will eventually become less reliable, just like our 50 plus year old state ferries.”
“Of course that is a ridiculous suggestion. I would not seriously suggest cutting off Talkeetna. But it is no more ridiculous that the current proposal from the Marine Highway concerning Sitka. The problem, Senator, rests with the piecemeal approach the administration and your Finance Committee are taking to balancing the state budget. Last year you proposed only cuts to the budget without looking at revenue. The cuts were made within departments without looking at the cumulative effect on communities or industries. So you get a situation where Sitka loses most of its ferry service and, at the same time, is one of only two communities to face 100% cuts in State Parks. There is no coordination on how these cuts affect a community. Each department makes its cuts. This, along with no consideration on new revenue, is piecemeal.”
“Senator, your committee needs to take a systematic look at the state budget, expense and income together, taking into account the state’s need to fund education, public safety, health and welfare while promoting a strong economy, not destroying it. You need to consider community economic viability. You cannot cut your way balanced budget without destroying too much of our economy. You need to build your way to a balanced budget and to a strong economy. This means prioritizing state needs and building the budget and revenue streams from zero. I support zero based budgeting in a situation this drastic.”
Well, I am not sure that the state will listen to me or to Sitka. In the end I think our only hope is to get the federal government to declare State Ferries an endangered species in the critical habitat between Salisbury Sound and Starrigavan Bay. With this declaration we sue for Federal protection. This may be our only hope.