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Bellingham concerned by proposed cuts to Alaska ferries budget

The Bellingham Cruise Terminal is the southern starting point for the Alaska Marine Highway System. However, the future of that system may be in jeopardy.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Life on the waters of Bellingham Bay means a life at least partially tied to the Alaska ferry system.

The Bellingham Cruise Terminal in the city's historic Fairhaven District is the southern starting point for the Alaska Marine Highway System. However, that system may be in jeopardy as lawmakers consider a state budget proposal for 2020 that would cut about $96 million from the system's budget. 

Near the ferry terminal at Coffee Junction in Fairhaven, Niki Mork sees the benefits of the Alaska ferry traffic first hand. 

"We get a lot of traffic in the summer," she said. 

The route from Bellingham to Ketchikan is one of many on the chopping block under the proposed 2020 Alaskan state budget. As reported by KTUU, if the budget is passed, funding would continue through summer, but no sailings would be scheduled from Oct. 1, 2019 until June 30, 2020. One senator from Alaska questioned how a system could bounce back if it was shut down over the winter. 

Full service would remain August, Alaska DOT said, but reductions would begin in September under the proposed budget. Without a replacement, cuts could leave some coastal communities without surface access to the North American road network.

"It's one of the main routes from the lower 48 states to Alaska," Mork said.

It's one of the reason's Inland Boatmans Union Steward Anthony Distefano is fighting so hard.

"Removal would be akin to tearing up I-5," he said. "People wouldn't have any access to hospitals, school events. They wouldn't have any access, in fact, to their own state government."

The union says hundreds of jobs are at stake. But they're also concerned about the impact on isolated communities in southeast Alaska.

"If you have a family of four, you cant afford to throw your kids on an airplane, but you can afford to take the ferry to your destination. So most people in the community depend on this vital service," Distefano said.

At the coffee shop, Niki wonders what life would look like without the weekly visit from the ferry.

"That would have a huge impact," she said. "Three months in the summer is just tourism."

"It's hard to imagine it," she said. "But I don't know what else they're going to do."

The Inland Boatman's Union plans to hold a rally at the Bellingham terminal on Friday, March 8 from 2-4 p.m.

Whatcom County councilmember Satpal Singh Sidhu said he plans to introduce a resolution this week saying the county supports the Alaska ferry operating in Bellingham. He also hopes to write a letter on behalf of the county to the Alaska and Washington governors.

"There are a lot of jobs in Bellingham locally that depend on that, and a lot of businesses that depend on that," he said.

He said he could get on board with a reduction of service - but hopes to retain it year round for businesses.

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