Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, heavily criticized the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities for its management of the Alaska Marine Highway System at a press conference Monday.
“There is a huge disconnect between our administration, i.e. DOT running the vessels, the captains running the vessels, the engineers running the vessels and Vigor Shipyard,” Stutes said, referring to the private company that runs the Ketchikan Shipyard. “There’s no communication whatsoever.”
Stutes alleged there was little to no collaboration by shore-side staff and those running the vessels, to the point where repair requests submitted by captains and engineers were not even confirmed as received by DOT.
“They put in their request for service and that’s the last they ever hear of it,” Stutes said. “The head engineer (on the shore), most of the captains wouldn’t recognize him if they walked past him in the hallway.”
The problem didn’t start with Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Stutes said, but it also has not improved. She cited the governor’s recent action regarding the coronavirus, where the governor has requested additional funds to combat the spread of the disease. She applauded the governor for taking that action, and said the same action should be taken for the AMHS.
“Why does this emergency not apply to our Alaska Marine Highway System and our communities which have been in a dire situation for months now?” Stutes asked.
That was a sentiment shared by some at the Native Issues Forum hosted by Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska at Elizabeth Peratovich Hall. The subject of Monday’s forum was the AMHS. Executive Director of Friends of AMHS Percy Frisby called the current situation with the ferries a state of emergency.
“We are in a state of emergency,” Frisby said. “We demand accountability oversight. This is not a perfect storm. This is a calculated miscarriage of justice.”
Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference was also at the forum and told the crowd many of the difficulties between the management of the AMHS and the labor unions which work on the boat was the result of “misalignment, not working together as well as they should.”
Robb Arnold, vice chairman of the Inland Boatman’s Union of the Pacific, agreed the lack of communication between vessel crews and management was a major issue.
“The Matanuska has been here in town for how long?” Arnold asked, referring to the ferry which has been docked at Auke Bay since late January. “Not one individual from the DOT has been down there to talk to the crew as far as I know.”
That was disconcerting Arnold said, adding AMHS was having trouble with retention of ferry workers. With workers leaving, Arnold said, there may be staffing issues once more if the ferries are put back in service for the summer season.
Worker retention was an issue raised by Stutes as well.
“They’re abandoning ship,” Stutes said. Many of the ferry workers Stutes spoke with on her visit to Ketchikan were candid with her, she said, because they were leaving for better work. “The captains are frustrated, the engineers are frustrated, crews are frustrated.”
The Empire reached out to both DOT and the governor’s office for comment. DOT said in an email the governor’s office had requested the department answer the Empire’s questions. DOT did not immediately answer the questions.