Alaska ferry route closure could cost community

Columbia, a ferry that travels between Bellingham and Alaska, sits in the Bellingham Ferry Terminal in Fairhaven on April 5, 2019. // Photo by Oliver Hamlin

By Colin Murphy

Alaska’s State Legislature has proposed budget cuts that may end ferry travel from Bellingham to Alaska, worrying some Whatcom County officials about the potential impacts on Bellingham.

The nearly $100 million cut for the Alaska Marine Highway System budget would eliminate ferry travel to Alaska from Bellingham as soon as September, according to the governor’s proposed budget and current ferry schedules. In response, members of the Whatcom County Council approved a resolution in late March in support of maintaining the routes which, according to the resolution, is the only marine link between the lower 48 states and Alaska.

According to council member Satpal Sidhu, who proposed the resolution to the Whatcom County Council, this decision shows the short-sidedness of the Legislature in Alaska. Federal involvement in maintaining the routes is necessary if Alaska wants to balance its deficit, Sidhu said.

“If an I-5 bridge fails and we put federal and state money into it as everybody goes crazy—how come this bridge is falling and nobody is paying attention to that?” Sidhu said. “It’s just like another bridge on the highway.”

According to Port of Bellingham spokesperson, Mike Hogan, approximately 20,000 passengers use the ferry to and from Alaska each year. According to a Whatcom County economic impact study from 2013, the revenue from ferry traffic generates an estimated $4.2 million annually.

Hogan said in an email that he believes eliminating the Alaska Marine Highway System would negatively impact the economies of both Washington and Alaska.

“For 30 years, the Alaska Marine Highway’s service to Bellingham has strengthened the economic relationship between our two regions and provided a vital transportation link for residents, visitors and businesses,” Hogan said.   

“There are a lot of business people, small business people, who depend on the ferry,” Sidhu said. “There are small contractors who are in these coastal communities, building contractors, services contractors whose business will be disrupted.”

Sandy Ward, CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, is concerned about the impact Fairhaven merchants would feel due to the loss of tourism connected to the ferry route. 

“These are people who potentially could spend a night in a hotel, eating in restaurants or shopping in stores,” Ward said.

The resolution states that the Alaska Marine Highway System supports a number of direct and indirect family wage jobs, in both Bellingham and the many coastal communities in Alaska who rely on the ferry connection. 

The resolution expressed equal concern for the coastal communities in Alaska who would be affected by the closure.

One of the concerns on behalf of Alaska’s communities is the the large number of residents who use the ferry to access the healthcare, medical services and expertise in Bellingham and Seattle, where air travel ranges from expensive to inaccessible.

According to a memorandum from Alaska’s Gov. Mike Dunleavy, an effort to examine alternatives for the Alaska Marine Highway such as privatization of the ferry routes is currently underway. 

Currently, the Whatcom County Council is drafting a letter to the Alaska’s State Legislature to reconsider the elimination of routes this fall, according to Sidhu.

The Bellingham Herald reports that for trips between Alaska and Bellingham, the regular service will remain through the end of September. However,  as of right now, no vessels are scheduled to run past October 2019.

According to the 2013 study, The Port of Bellingham built the Bellingham Cruise Terminal for $10.3 million to handle ferry traffic in 1989. So far there are no plans for alternative uses of the terminal, according to Sidhu.

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