The Alaska Marine Highway System is at a critical juncture. Since its first port of call, the Alaska Marine Highway has provided substantial economic growth and improved quality of life for Alaskans. It has become a vital socio-economic engine even more now, than when it was conceived half a century ago. We cannot afford to lose this transportation corridor for Alaska.
However, we must acknowledge that the state can no longer afford to pay for the current system and outdated management model. Our legislators must understand the economic necessity provided by the marine highway while Southeast Conference and coastal Alaska work with the Governor’s Office, legislators, and Alaska’s Department of Transportation to determine measures that are needed to make changes.
There is no question that the Alaska Marine Highway System needs a major overhaul. It operates in an environment with market, political and operational challenges unlike anywhere else in the world. Its service mandate is broad; its markets are small and diverse. Success over the long-term will require a carefully crafted combination of management, operations and funding strategies. Any new system will take significant time to develop and fully implement. As time erodes so do the options and the chance to act in a deliberate and thoughtful way. Our hope is that the legislature will recognize the efforts of the many citizens working hard to improve our highway and provide enough time and funding to design and implement a new operating model to address the current day obstacles. Southeast Conference is taking active steps to update the system into a responsive and predictable marine highway which will transcend political and administration shifts; a system that will partner with communities and have shared responsibility and accountability for the success or failure of that system. If a viable, long-term plan and a governance structure were put in place to carry out that plan, I believe there would be the trust necessary to define funding and service in a manner that can be agreed upon by Alaskans.
A shift in thinking about the Marine Highway; Changes in its governing structure, and — above all — a reliable long-term strategic plan, are what we at Southeast Conference seek for our state, its people, and the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Shelly Wright, Southeast Conference, executive director