The Alaska ferry won’t arrive in Bellingham Friday — or for the foreseeable future

Alaska ferry system brings passengers to Bellingham

The southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System is in Bellingham, Wash. Alaska ferries allow for walk-on and vehicle passengers.
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The southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway System is in Bellingham, Wash. Alaska ferries allow for walk-on and vehicle passengers.

The Alaska ferry is not scheduled to arrive at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Fairhaven on Friday, July 26, and no trips to or from Alaska are currently planned.

According to a Wednesday, July 24, press release from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, the Inlandboatman’s Union of the Pacific went on strike. The result is that no Alaska Marine Highway vessels, including the twice-a-week trips between Bellingham and Alaska, will sail until further notice.

The strike was in its second full day on Friday.

“At this time, we are focused on the safety of passengers, crew and vessels,” the press release said. “We are reaching out to ticketed passengers to work with them to reschedule or offer refunds for tickets. We are working to return ships to safe harbor with adequate shoreside support.

“Your patience is appreciated as we work through the logistics of getting passengers rerouted. There is a heavy volume of calls right now, we are doing our best to reach everyone as quickly as possible.”

Updates on the status of ferry trips can be obtained at dot.alaska.gov/amhs/service_notices.shtml or by calling 800-642-0066.

Belair Charters and Airporter also posted on its website that it will not pick up or drop off passengers at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal Friday or Saturday, July 27, because of the strike. All passengers will be picked up at the Bellingham 4 Points Sheraton hotel instead.

Alaska Department of Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon said in a teleconference Friday that ferry reservations are now being canceled out to July 30.

So far, he said, $1.2 million worth of tickets have been canceled, representing more than 3,000 travelers and 750 vehicles that couldn’t travel because the eight ferries have been tied up.

MacKinnon said there also have been 225 passengers and 94 vehicles that have been stranded in ports that were not their final destinations.

The strike

According to a story by the Anchorage Daily News, IBU workers walked off the ferry M/V Columbia, which is one of the vessels that regularly serves Bellingham, while it was moored in Ketchikan at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Other ferry workers reportedly followed suit when they were in port.

“The state doesn’t want a work stoppage, and we don’t believe a strike is necessary,” Department of Administration commissioner Kelly Tshibaka told the Daily News.

In Friday’s teleconference, Tshibaka said the state remains open to meeting with the IBU at any time, but said a response letter from the IBU was “snarky in nature.”

Tshibaka also said Friday that the state has informed the striking employees that if the work stoppage continues beyond Aug. 1, their health insurance premiums would not be paid.

“We want to make sure the employees know what’s coming up next week,” Tshibaka said.

According to the story, the Alaska Department of Transportation was not paying for airfare for passengers but said passengers could use their ticket refunds to find other modes of transportation.

According to the story, the IBU, which is headquartered in Seattle, represents more than 400 workers in the ferry system and has been working under a series of interim agreements since 2017, since the last three-year contract expired.

“We’re willing to make concessions and want to make a deal,” IBU’s Robb Arnold told KTUU.com. “But now they’ve pushed us so far into the corner that we have to do what we have to do.”

Arnold told KTUU that the strike was indefinite.

According to the Daily News Story, part of the IBU’s concerns are over planned budget cuts to the ferry system.

Approximately a dozen cars waited to board the Columbia in a Ketchikan, according to story published Thursday by KTOO.org. One man told KTOO that they had 100 pounds of fresh salmon that would spoil if the ferry didn’t sail, while another said he would miss out on a work opportunity if he couldn’t get to San Diego by Monday.

KTOO also reported that IBU’s last Alaska ferry strike came in 1977.

The Alaska Marine Highway ferry Columbia arrives at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in 2010. A strike by the Inlandboatman’s Union of the Pacific has forced the Alaska Marine Highway System to cancel all ferry trips, including those to the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Fairhaven, until further notice. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Ferry budget troubles

As previously reported by The Bellingham Herald, the Alaska Marine Highway System earlier this summer released a proposed operating plan for this winter. The M/V Matanuska was to sail out of Bellingham three times a month in November, December, March and April, and four times a month in January and February.

The Matanuska is a smaller vessel than the Columbia, with a capacity to carry 499 passengers and 88 vehicles, while the Columbia can carry 499 passengers and 134 vehicles. The Columbia was to be used for the Bellingham run until the end of September.

Using the Matanuska and tying up the Columbia this winter will save about $400,000 a month, said Aurah Landau, spokeswoman for the agency. It’s part of a plan to cut costs because the Alaska Marine Highway System is receiving $43.6 million less than it did the previous fiscal year, according to the operating plan.

The decision was an acceptable result for Bellingham and that it “certainly could have been much worse,” said Rob Fix, executive director at the Port of Bellingham.

“The process has proven that the Bellingham run is important to Alaskans,” Fix said.

The future of the ferry in Bellingham was in doubt earlier this year as the Alaska state government looked at making deep cuts to the budget. It appeared that there would be no Bellingham run at all this winter.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.