Budget cuts change schedule in Bellingham Cruise Terminal scheduling on the Alaska Marine Highway System

Front entrance of Bellingham cruise terminal July 11. // Photo by Colin Rice

By Colin Rice

The Bellingham Cruise Terminal will be applying changes to its ferry routes from Bellingham to Alaska as the Alaska Marine Highway System undergoes recent budget cuts. 

These budget cuts were officially put into effect on June 29, and have been in progress since the proposal on February 13. Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy proposed a total of $700 million would be cut from operating budgets for multiple programs, departments and other state services. 

Some of these big budget cuts include the University of Alaska’s system losing $130.2 million, and $125 million in state Medicaid. The additional cuts proposed in February were $444 million as an effort to eliminate Alaska’s state spending deficit, which will stand at $850 million.

The Bellingham to Alaska ferry route will be substituted with two other vessels, the M/V Malaspina and M/V Matanuska. These are smaller alternatives are running rather than more expensive 418-foot M/V Columbia, according to Alaska Marine Highway System spokesperson Aurah Landau in a statement to CoastAlaska.

“The Columbia will have been removed from the schedule to save money,” Sandy Ward, president and chief executive officer of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism said. “The other two ferries will continue to run.” 

The ferry will continue on its usual route until Sept. 4 while the other ferries will run on their regular schedules throughout the same month. The replacement is projected to save around $400,000 monthly.

The Alaska Marine Highway System will see its original budget of $140 million go down to $44 million by 2020, a reduction of $96 million or, over 68% of its budget lost according to Alaska’s Component Summary of its state budget. This includes the ferry’s budget for fuel be reduced by about 75%. The component summary also shows other budgets in the department of transportation/public facilities are only going to lose a smaller portion of their funds, the biggest cut is in administration and support at 6.4%.

Alaska’s transportation is not the only department to be affected by the reduction in state spending, as institutions like the University of Alaska will lose about $134 million, according to Dunleavy’s budget proposal which can be found at omb.alaska.gov/ombfiles/20_budget/Law/Enacted/20compsummary_law.pdf

The southern terminal of the Alaska Marine Highway System has been located at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal since it opened on Oct. 3, 1989, when the Port of Bellingham built the terminal for about $10.3 million, according to the Port’s website. It had its first operation the day after when M/V Matanuska took sail, and two days later on Oct. 6, 1989, M/V Columbia departed from Bellingham for the first time. 

With the loss of the M/V Columbia, Whatcom County may potentially lose tourism the ferries bring down south from Alaska and Canada. The Alaska Marine Highway System makes a huge economic profit for Whatcom County, as most of the 20,000 passengers that come into Bellingham a year from 2014 – 2018 are visitors who shop and dine, according to the Port of Bellingham. 

There are also questions still unanswered to what will happen with the 62 crew members on the M/V Columbia, and while the AMHS reports they will be moved to another ferry in the same fleet, “The Port does not have any information about how changes to vessel routes or operating schedules will impact Alaska Marine Highway System staffing levels,” Mike Hogan, public affairs administrator of the Port of Bellingham said.

Martin Associates did an economic impact study on the AMHS in Whatcom County, in the report it lists the AMHS’s operations generating $4.2 million on average yearly, and funds for directly employing 32 workers in the county. This study can be found at coaltrainfacts.org/docs/MartinAssocEcomonicImpactsReport2011.pdf. The Port ensures there is still lobbying and plans of action to take following these budget cuts and changes in the ferry services. 

The Port and citizens of Whatcom County have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with the Alaska Marine Highway system for 30 years, and the Port is very concerned anytime cuts to the Alaska/Washington ferry route,” Hogan said.

This economic boom in Fairhaven coming from ferries bringing down tourists, according to the Martin Associates study, is noticed by the Board of Directors of the Historic Fairhaven Association, according to the Port of Bellingham. 

“There is speculation on Fairhaven’s small business during peak time,” Connie Shannon, secretary of the Historic Fairhaven Association said. “The HFA looks to work on to promoting Fairhaven as a community come the changes of the Bellingham-Alaska ferry.”Many small and local businesses in the Historic Fairhaven District are partnered up with the Historic Fairhaven Association, whose mission statement is to “promote Fairhaven as a community while preserving the historical character,” according to their website at hfa.fairhaven.com. There is no immediate call to action or plan by the HFA to drive more tourism when the ferry schedules change.

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