Nearby Alaskan island runs its own ferry service

  • Mon Apr 12th, 2004 7:00pm
  • News

Better ferry service is bringing a better quality of life to Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, say some people who live there.
In recent years, Prince of Wales Island’s population has dropped to 4,000 people from 5,000, and the forest sector has been in difficulty, Kent Miller, a resident of the island who has been involved in the ferry project since it began in 1994, told the Observer.
But better ferry service is helping the communities to cope. “Improving infrastructure can help communities in decline to recover,” he said.
“A number of fisheries here were basically struggling because of their inability to get their product to market,” said Stu Vincent of the Inter Island Ferry Authority. “A couple of small seafood plants are getting started again because we can move their seafood out on a regular basis.”
The ferry has also improved life for island residents. “People that have appointments are able to take the ferry over [to Ketchikan] in the morning, get their appointments taken care of and get back home the same day,” Mr. Vincent said.
In 2001, six communities on Prince of Wales Island took control of their ferry service, and their venture is paying off.
Instead of one ferry a week, they now have daily ferry service in the winter, with two daily sailings during the summer. The ferry, called the Prince of Wales, is 198 feet long with room for 150 passengers, 30 standard cars and 10 semi-trailers. Passenger numbers have increased to 57,000 from 37,000 since the new service began. The fares are paying for all operating expenses and will soon be paying for the capital costs as well, Mr. Miller said.
The ferry service is sometimes used as an example of successful privatization, Mr. Miller said, but this isn’t accurate. The Inter Island Ferry Authority is a public corporation under Alaska’s Port Authority laws. A private company leases the galley and dining area, but that is the only private component of the company, he said.
“What we’ve done is a public, municipal process,” with local direction, he said.
Eighty per cent of the capital for the $20 million ferry came from the US Congress in the form of a capital grant from the federal department of transport, Mr. Miller explained. The remaining 20 per cent comes from revenue bonds the municipalities sold.
So far, the ferry service has been able to pay for all its operating expenses, which includes terminal maintenance, ferry maintenance and wages, Mr. Miller said. The Ferry Authority has been able to make a small dent in its $4-million debt, but not enough to keep up with the re-payment schedule. In order to pay the debt, the Ferry Authority refinances it by borrowing on the short-term market. However, Mr. Miller is optimistic the ferry will be earning enough to make all its payments by next year.
The Inter Island Ferry Authority plans to open a second route to service Wrangell and Petersburg by 2006, Mr. Miller said. For more information about the Inter Island Ferry Authority, you can go to www.interislandferry.com.