North Sound News

Bellingham could lose connection to Alaska under proposal to stop state ferry service

Alaskans know them as "the blue canoes."

Iconic, blue-hulled state ferries in the Alaska Marine Highway System serve communities from the Aleutian Islands to Bellingham.

Each year, 30,000 people pass through Bellingham for the ferry to southeast Alaska.

Now, Alaska's governor is proposing shutting down all state ferry service after Oct. 1.

Republican Mike Dunleavy was elected in November and has submitted what his press secretary says is a balanced budget after years of running deficits.

The governor tweeted, "(We) can no longer spend what we don't have."

Dunleavy proposes zeroing out all ferry service after September and hiring a consultant to figure out how to reform or partially privatize the system, possibly restarting some service in June 2020.

It's unclear how the Bellingham run would be affected long -term, but if the governor's budget is approved by the Alaska Legislature, there would be no service at all for at least nine months.

James Pitzer runs StrEAT Food inside the Bellingham terminal and sells a lot of meals to waiting passengers.

"It's shocking. It's not one of those things you expect to go away, right?" Pitzer said.

The Alaska Marine Highway System moved its southern terminal from Pier 48 in Seattle to Bellingham in 1989.

A photo from the day the M/V Columbia arrived for the first time hangs in the office of Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"It's a point of pride, it's a point of identity and there's this unique fact that we're the only stop in the continental lower 48 (states)," Occhiogrosso said.

As difficult as losing ferry service might be for Bellingham, it would be far worse for many small communities in Alaska.

State officials told KIRO 7 that of the 35 ports served by the ferries, 28 are not accessible by road, and a few don't even have airstrips.

More news from KIRO 7


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