By R. Bruce Striegler
A critical transportation link between Prince Rupert and Ketchikan, Alaska, has been suspended over a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) requirement that Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) secure Canadian law enforcement presence to protect CBP personnel in Prince Rupert while inspection tasks are performed. The ferry system operated two sailings per week during summer months and once weekly in winter. In 2018 there were 5,700 passengers and 3,000 vehicles. The ferry terminal is unusual – a U.S.-funded project on land leased from a federal Port Authority in Canada.
According to Price Rupert Mayor Lee Brain, “The City of Prince Rupert explored all options to provide armed support to Customs for the Alaska Marine Highway System. Unfortunately, given our remote location and existing police capacity, it would have necessitated hiring additional full-time police officers, an expense that neither the Alaska Marine Highway System nor the City are able to support financially,” Brain stated. The ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway make up a large part of Alaska’s highway system, taking in 3,500 miles of coastline with terminals in 35 communities that stretch from Bellingham, Washington on the south to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Chain. The Prince Rupert service, a 7-hour voyage, started in 1963, and was the original southern terminus for AMHS. In 1967, the ferry service opened its south to Washington State, a 38-hour sailing terminating in Bellingham, WA.
Veronika Stewart, Communications Manager, City of Prince Rupert, told Canadian Sailings that as well as many community members who use the service, “There is also obviously significant tourism traffic that comes here through the service.” Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities Commissioner John MacKinnon provided us with a statement; “We recognize that this impacts many passengers and communities. We’ve met with Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain and are working on a short-term solution. If Canadian law enforcement becomes available, AMHS could return service to Prince Rupert this winter.”
City of Prince Rupert meets with Alaskan officials searching for solution
Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain said in a written statement that he has held meetings in Alaska with mayors, legislators, senators, union leaders and local businesses as well as senior state officials in Juneau, including Transportation Commissioner John MacKinnon, and the Governor’s Chief of Staff Ben Stevens, to present a variety of solutions. In his statement he says, “At this stage, it will take a few weeks for some details to be figured out regarding the immediate solution. If it was up to the State and the City, we would have signed an agreement in Juneau – but currently we must wait for more information from border protection agencies on both the U.S. and Canada side regarding pre/post clearance issues (so to be clear, the immediate issue is regarding new federal legislation requirements). It’s clear to me that folks from the state have a true desire to solve this problem. It’s also clear to me that the majority of folks across Southeast Alaska wish to see access to Prince Rupert.”
Prince Rupert’s The Northern View reports that there have been continuing issues with the Alaska Marine Highway terminal in Prince Rupert, including the need for approximately $15 million in upgrades and changes to ferry schedules that prevented basketball teams from Alaska participating in the 2019 60th All Native Basketball Tournament held in Prince Rupert. The paper notes that with the fall in oil prices, the new governor has proposed sweeping cuts not only affecting the transportation budget, but also education, and state-funded healthcare.
Passengers and vehicles boarding Alaska ferries in Prince Rupert, 188 kilometres south of Ketchikan, are routinely checked by U.S. agents. The “pre-clearance” system allows passengers to disembark without presenting paperwork again. Prince Rupert’s Mayor says, “I hope to be able to announce positive news as soon as we are able, in partnership with the State of Alaska.”