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Alaska Marine Highway

The Alaska Marine Highway or the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) is a ferry service operated by the government of the U.S. state of Alaska.

The Alaska Marine Highway System operates along the southcentral coast of the state, the eastern Aleutian islands and the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. Ferries serve communities in Southeastern Alaska that have no road access, and the vessels can transport people, freight, and vehicles. AMHS's 3,500 miles of routes go as far south as Bellingham, Washington in the contiguous United States and as far west as Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, with a total of 32 terminals throughout Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington. It is part of the National Highway System and receives federal highway funding. It is also a form of transportation of vehicles between the state and the contiguous United States without going through Canada.

The Alaska Marine Highway System is a rare example (in the USA) of a shipping line offering regularly scheduled service for the primary purpose of transportation rather than of leisure or entertainment. Voyages can last many days, but, in contrast to the luxury of a typical cruise line, cabins cost extra, and most food is served cafeteria-style.

History

The Alaska Marine Highway was founded in 1948 by Haines residents Steve Homer and Ray Gelotte, who used a converted LCT-Mark VI landing craft which they christened the M/V Chilkoot. Their business was purchased by the territorial government in 1951 and renamed the Alaska Marine Highway System in 1963. Service was extended to Prince Rupert, British Columbia that year, and to Bellingham in 1967.

In September 2005, the Alaska Marine Highway was named an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration.

Communities served

The Alaska Marine Highway's main hub is in Juneau, though administrative offices were recently and controversially moved to Ketchikan. Other smaller operational hubs include Cordova (Prince William Sound), Ketchikan (southern Panhandle), and Kodiak (Southcentral Alaska).

The AMHS serves the following communities year-round: Akutan; Angoon; Bellingham, Washington; Chenega Bay; Chignik; Cold Bay; Cordova; False Pass; Haines; Homer; Hoonah; Juneau; Kake; Ketchikan; King Cove; Kodiak; Metlakatla; Petersburg; Port Lions; Prince Rupert, British Columbia; Sand Point; Seldovia; Sitka; Skagway; Tatitlek; Tenakee Springs; Unalaska/Dutch Harbor; Valdez; Whittier; Wrangell; and Yakutat. Bartlett Cove, location of the Glacier Bay National Park ranger station and eight miles (13 km) from the community of Gustavus, is served occasionally by the M/V LeConte in summer months.

Vessels

Current vessels

The following vessels, from smallest to largest, currently serve in the Alaska Marine Highway's fleet:

  • M/V Lituya, solely dedicated to serving the Ketchikan-Metlakatla route.
  • M/V Chenega (fast ferry), operates in Prince William Sound.
  • M/V Fairweather (fast ferry), operates a variety of routes in Southeast Alaska.
  • M/V Aurora, operates in Prince William Sound.
  • M/V LeConte, serves the feeder communities in northern Southeast as a day boat.
  • M/V Tustumena, serves Southcentral and Aleutian Island communities.
  • M/V Taku, runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska.
  • M/V Malaspina, runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska, frequently beginning in Prince Rupert or Bellingham.
  • M/V Matanuska, runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska, frequently beginning in Prince Rupert or Bellingham.
  • M/V Kennicott, runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska, frequently beginning in Prince Rupert or Bellingham and making a cross-Gulf of Alaska trip to South-central Alaska once a month.
  • M/V Columbia, runs mainline throughout Southeast Alaska, frequently beginning in Prince Rupert or Bellingham.

Most Alaska Marine Highway System vessels are built for multiple-day voyages due to the large distances between ports. For example, it takes just under three days to travel from Bellingham to Skagway, and 18 hours for the Sitka to Juneau "milk run." Because of this, larger vessels (M/V Tustumena and larger) come with staterooms, while all mainline vessels have solariums, showers, and lounges for sleeping. Hot food services and, on the M/V Columbia, a sit-down restaurant are also offered.

All current vessels are named after Alaskan glaciers.

Traffic

The AMHS carries over 350,000 passengers and 100,000 vehicles every year. It is very popular with summer tourists (one of the primary reasons Bellingham and Prince Rupert are AMHS destinations). Tent cities commonly sprout up on the aft of mainline vessels, and for budget-travelers, the AMHS is one of the top modes of transportation to the "Last Frontier". Service drops off significantly in winter. Vessels usually undergo overhauls and renovations during this period due to the decline in passenger and vehicle traffic (attributed to lack of tourists).

Politics

The ferry system has been in the spotlight in recent years over a proposal to build a road link between Skagway and Juneau, the only mainland state capital in the United States without road access. Proponents of the road have called ferry service spotty and expensive compared to roads and say residents should be able to come and go as they please. Critics say the very people who want the road, the administration of Governor Frank Murkowski, are also in charge of the ferry system and are themselves responsible for the "spotty" ferry service and service changes often considered illogical. As well as the possibility for improved commerce and improved capital access, a road would present significant environmental, financial and social concerns that must be addressed.

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