That fleet of ferries is called the Alaska Marine Highway System, or AMHS. “It has its name for a purpose—the Alaska Marine Highway System. We are on islands,” State Representative Dan Ortiz told me in Ketchikan. The AMHS was created in 1963, four years after Alaska statehood, to weave the region into North America’s highways despite its geography. Prince Rupert, a Canadian city 40 miles south of the international border with road access, was its first southern terminus. The system grew over the next five decades, incorporating stops in Prince William Sound, the Aleutian Islands, and Washington. By 2013, 35 communities were connected.
However, unlike its asphalt counterparts, Alaska’s marine highway system would disappear overnight without government funding. Ticket sales account for about a third of its operating costs, and the state pays for the remainder. In early 2019, Governor Mike Dunleavy proposed a 75 percent cut in the system’s funding from the state, from $86 million in fiscal year 2019 to $21.8 million the next year, which would have effectively shut it down from October 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020. The proposal was an effort to reform the “inefficient system,” explained Donna Arduin, then the director of the Alaska Office of Management and Budget.
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But after pushback from lawmakers and Alaskans, the administration backed down and allocated $48 million to the AMHS—barely enough to keep the ferries on the water. These cuts are likely to remain, with the proposed 2021 budget warning that the “AMHS will provide significantly less services.” The Ketchikan–Prince Rupert route faces additional challenges related to new U.S. Customs and Border Protection regulations and aging terminal facilities. As a result, in late 2019, officials reduced the number of sailings to many smaller communities and eliminated the route between Prince Rupert and Ketchikan entirely. “We’re looking at no service from here until June,” Travis Ohlson, a resident of Gustavus, one of the affected towns, told me a few weeks after my ferry ride. “People are freaking out a little bit.”
In Gustavus, a 386-person community nestled against Glacier Bay National Park, everything—bulldozers, books, boots, computers, cars, coffee, produce, people, pets—must arrive by boat or plane. But when Ohlson was growing up there in the late 1990s, Gustavus didn’t yet have ferry service. So large items and most food came in by barge, including Ohlson’s first car, a used sedan that cost him $200 to buy and $600 to ship from Juneau. With shipping costs so high, residents were resourceful—expert recyclers by necessity.
Life changed when the AMHS started scheduled sailings to the town in 2010. The four-hour ferry ride from Juneau brought more visitors to the community, and groceries became more affordable. A one-way ticket from the city cost about $55, much cheaper than a roughly $120 plane ticket. Community members got used to the consistent, all-weather transportation linking them to stores, a hospital, and a jet airport in Juneau. But now those amenities are threatened by the abrupt transition back to pre-AMHS isolation starting in mid-January.