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With Alaska budget cuts looming, Bellingham could lose longtime ferry route

Alaska ferry system may cut some of its run to Bellingham

The southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System is in Bellingham, but Alaska officials may cut service here in the winter months.
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The southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System is in Bellingham, but Alaska officials may cut service here in the winter months.

Feb. 26, 2019 update: In response to the proposal to eliminate the Bellingham-to-Alaska ferry, the Inland Boatmans Union, the marine division of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, is holding a rally from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, March 1, at the Alaska Ferry terminal, 355 Harris Ave. “We hope to rally the citizens and labor around our members whose livelihoods are being threatened for cheap political theater, or more ominously, potentially a real and existential threat to a lifeline to many Alaskan communities,” according to an email to The Bellingham Herald from IBU steward Anthony Distefano.

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Budget cuts are on the minds of Alaska state legislators, and that could mean bad news for Bellingham.

Last week the Anchorage Daily News reported that the governor’s budget proposal has deep cuts slated for the Alaska Marine Highway System. The proposal would reduce the budget from $140 million to $44 million and could eliminate long routes, including from Alaska to Bellingham.

As a result of the proposed budget cuts, the Alaska Marine Highway System has adjusted its ferry schedule. For trips between Alaska and Bellingham, regular service will remain in place through the end of September. As of now, no vessels in the entire system are scheduled to run starting October 2019 and going through June 2020, said Aurah Landau, a spokeswoman for the highway system, in an email on Wednesday.

The Alaska Department of Transportation intends to hire a marine consultant to identify potential reductions in funding from the state. That could include exploring public-private partnership opportunities, with a plan being implemented in July 2020.

This summer the ferry boat schedule from Bellingham includes Friday sailings on the MV Columbia and every-other-Saturday sailings on the MV Kennicott. In September, the sailings would be at least once a week.

Cutting the Bellingham-to-Alaska ferry route would be a blow to this area, according to the Port of Bellingham. In an email, Port spokesman Mike Hogan said around 30,000 passengers use the ferry to and from Bellingham each year.

Bellingham-to-Ketchikan fare for a single passenger without a car is about $300.

An economic impact study estimates the run generates $4.2 million in revenue annually and employs 32 people in Whatcom County.

kennicott
The MV Kennicott dwarfs a pair of kayakers as it is moored at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Fairhaven. Alaska’s governor’s budget proposal has deep cuts slated for the Alaska Marine Highway System, potentially eliminating the Alaska-to-Bellingham route. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

“The port is very concerned anytime cuts to the Alaska/Washington ferry route are proposed,” Hogan said, adding that while concerning, this is not the first time this cut has been proposed. “The port is confident legislators will continue to recognize the importance of this vital transportation link to the state’s economy and quality of life.”

Hogan noted at this point it is unknown what will happen with the ferry run beyond September until a final Alaska budget is passed later this year.

Those who take the Alaska ferry from Bellingham tend to be visitors who also spend the night at local hotels, said Sandy Ward, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. She said in an interview that ending ferry service would definitely be a loss for the community.

Alaska’s state budget has been running a deficit for several years, said Matt Shuckerow, press secretary for Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy. A big factor in Alaska’s budget woes is from falling oil tax revenue. The price of crude oil was around $100 a barrel in 2014, but has been down significantly in recent years. Brent crude oil is currently in the $67-a-barrel range.

The goal is to reshape the system, focusing on keeping core services funded.

“We recognize the importance of ferry routes, but we need to fix our fiscal reality,” Shuckerow said. “We can no longer have everything we once had.”

Bellingham has been the southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System since 1989. The port built the Bellingham Cruise Terminal for $10.3 million, according to the agency’s website.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.

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