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The infrastructure package boosts an unsung hero of rural transportation: ferries

“Ferries are part of our road system,” says Douglas Olerud, mayor of Haines, Alaska. Residents rely on them to go to their jobs or to get to doctor appointments, surgeries, and chemo or other life-saving treatments. High school students take the ferry to compete in tournaments. Add in COVID restrictions during the pandemic and, says Olerud, “a lot of people feel trapped.”

While every state has roads, just 37 states have ferries, for a total of 200 ferry systems. Yes, even the landlocked midwest has ferries that cross the Mississippi River and service some of the Great Lakes.

Overall, ferry systems aren’t in horrific shape. Well, not all of them at least. But for communities that rely on ferries, the problems of aging fleets, lack of funding, and staff shortages are huge. Many people live in remote communities cut off from the road system or, of course, on islands. In those cases, there’s often no other choice but to wait for the next ferry to show up.

So news that the infrastructure bill would send millions toward reviving existing ferries and building new ones was welcomed in areas that rely on boats the most. The specifics: $1 billion for new essential ferry services for rural areas; $337 million for new ferries and ferry terminal facilities; and $250 million for a pilot project for electric or low-carbon emission fuel ferries. In addition, Alaska will be able to apply Federal-aid highway funds to the Alaska Marine Highway System (the formal name for the state ferries) for operations and repairs.

While ferry ridership across the nation took a pandemic hit and some systems lost 40 to 50 percent of their passengers, according to Workboat magazine, numbers are up again since workers began returning to offices.

But ferries are experiencing the same employee drought felt across most industries. In October, Washington State Ferries cut sailings on some routes in half, according to the Seattle Times. Days later, the paper’s editorial board didn’t mince words in a headline that declared: “Washingtonians deserve a reliable, resilient ferry system.” While COVID-19 and the staff shortages definitely played into the sailing cutbacks, the piece made it clear that the system was also “underfunded and antiquated,” a huge issue considering that it is “the only viable transportation option for many Washingtonians.”

Julie Marie Anderson, a Haines, Alaska-based nurse, ended up switching jobs because the Alaska State Ferry system was too unreliable. Aging boats and state budget cuts left Anderson and many others who relied on the system in a constant game of wondering: will the boat show or not?

Before Anderson finally gave up and took a job that didn’t rely as much on hitting the water to get to work, she spent her working hours in the state capital of Juneau. The weekly trip was mostly ok during the summer when tourists also clamored for ferry space, but fall and winter sailings were on a limited schedule. Then cutbacks left Haines with just one ferry sailing option each week, if even that often.

No, driving was not an option. Haines, in Southeast Alaska (where most Alaska cruises sail through), is on the road system, but the Alaska state capital of Juneau is not. So you can drive out of Haines, but Juneau, some 93 miles away, is only accessible by water or air. And the only way to connect to most other parts of the U.S. by car from Haines is through Canada (an option that was completely cut off during most of the pandemic).

And, of course, there’s that famously-changeable Alaskan weather. “You can go 10 or 12 days where it’s not flyable between Haines and Juneau,” says Olerud.

When the ferry went AWOL, a local tour company, Allen Marine, filled in as much as possible with charter trips, but their boats can’t take cars—a big problem for people who might spend a week in another town for medical appointments or work. Add car rental in towns that don’t have huge rental fleets to nightly hotel rooms and the expenses add up quickly. (Though Anderson remains grateful nonetheless; when travel options to work are limited, people in remote communities know better than to thumb their nose at those who step in to help.)

Anderson still takes the ferry for Juneau trips to teach nursing courses that require “a lot of equipment that is cost-prohibitive to fly with,” she says, but now works largely in Haines.

In short: ferries are important for people’s livelihoods, and the money from the infrastructure package, if spent properly, should make ferry systems more consistent, reliable, and could even increase the number of sailings. However, Mayor Olerud says past spending errors by the Alaska Marine Highway System don’t necessarily “give us a lot of optimism that the money is going to be spent in the best way to make sure [the system is] going to be sustainable long term.”

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