The change in the noise coming from the Matanuska’s engines was a clue something was wrong with the ferry. A peek out the window was confirmation.

“We were creeping along,” said Adrianne Milos, one of the passengers making what should have been a three-day trip from Bellingham, Washington, home to Alaska in late January.

The crew came on loudspeakers and announced they’d be bringing the ship into Juneau at half speed.

When they finally arrived, Milos, her husband and their cat, Squeaks, were only 70 miles from home in Haines, a small community up the Lynn Canal from Juneau. But they were effectively stranded.

A 30% budget cut imposed on the ferry system last year and unforeseen maintenance problems meant the Matanuska was the only mainline ferry operating on the Alaska Marine Highway System. Now it was broken down, presenting more than an inconvenience to Milos and fellow passengers: Communities already reeling from service cuts faced a month with next to no ferries at all.

While presidential candidates and lawmakers in Washington decry the wobbly state of America’s infrastructure and pitch multibillion-dollar plans to fix it, the collapse of Alaska’s ferry system this winter dramatically illustrates how years of problems and a final blow in the form of a slashed budget caused a vital transportation link to fail altogether.

When a road is riddled with potholes or a rickety bridge has to be closed, there’s likely to be another way around. That’s not the case with Alaska’s ferries, which serve three dozen communities, many of which aren’t connected to the rest of the continent by roads at all.

In Juneau, Milos and her husband packed up their cat in a catamaran arranged by the ferry service and took up residence on board for a week with their 1988 Nissan Pathfinder. Finally, the weather improved enough for her to fly home, while the SUV made its way on a barge.

People in remote Alaskan settlements say it’s hard for outsiders to grasp how important the Marine Highway System is to them. The ferry network dates back to the earliest years of statehood in the 1960s. It serves the islands in the southeastern part of the state and the Aleutian chain that stretches into the northern Pacific, covering some 3,500 miles in all. In the last budget year it carried about 250,000 passengers and 100,000 vehicles.

“We got so used to having it over the last 50-some years,” said Milos, a retiree who initially moved to Haines to take a job working on the ferries. “It is our highway.”

It’s used to get groceries to stores, send salmon to market, dispatch school groups to basketball tournaments, take pregnant women to the hospital and bring their newborn babies home again. The mayor of one coastal town described how a woman had to convince her doctors to induce labor so her baby would be born in time for her to get home before the ferry service halted for the winter.

Lawmakers, officials and residents agree that the system’s problems have been slowly mounting for years. The ferries’ steel hulls are pitched in a constant battle against rust-causing salt water, making for hefty maintenance bills. The Matanuska (named for the Matanuska Glacier) and its sister ship are 57 years old, which drives up costs.

The current crisis began last February, when Alaska’s new Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, introduced a budget that slashed state services across the board. Among them was a proposal to cut nearly $100 million from the ferry network’s $140 million operating budget. The ferry system was just one target of Dunleavy’s cost-cutting, which also took aim at the state university system. His administration said the moves were necessary in the face of declining oil revenue, which accounts for about a quarter of the state’s budget.

Lawmakers, who say the proposed cut to the ferry system would have led to it shutting down entirely by last October, pushed back, reducing the ferry budget cut to $43 million. Nevertheless, the state Transportation Department still had to reduce service dramatically, leaving some communities with no ferries through the winter, under a schedule it described in a news release as “fiscally constrained.”

Juneau and the communities that dot the waterfront on the islands reaching along the Canadian border toward Washington would still be served by Matanuska – until it broke down. The ship isn’t expected to be fixed until March at the earliest. Of the 12 vessels in the system’s fleet, only the smallest is still running, providing short-distance shuttle service.

John MacKinnon, Alaska’s transportation commissioner, acknowledged that the budget cut left longer gaps in winter service than his department would have liked and led to some ships being taken offline altogether. But the Matanuska had just gotten new engines installed, so officials thought it could be relied on.

“We expected it to be taking care of most of the slack and it broke down,” said MacKinnon, who was appointed by Dunleavy. “It’s the brand-new equipment that failed.”

This winter, towns and villages across the state have been dealing with the consequences, figuring out alternatives to life without the ferry. There are private barge services and small planes, but both are expensive, and bad winter weather often leaves aircraft grounded. The governor himself recently had to cancel a town hall in a community served by the ferry because the weather was too bad to fly, prompting jibes on Twitter.

Shayne Thompson and his wife run the Angoon Trading Co., a small store in a village of about 500 people nestled against the water on Admiralty Island. He’s been running out of fresh milk, fruit and vegetables.

Someone posted pictures of the store’s bare shelves and coolers to Facebook, and the images were soon shared among residents feeling the effects of the ferry disruption. Images from another store showed blackened bananas and more empty shelves.

Thompson experimented with bringing in goods by air, but that didn’t work out, so he’s been using private boats.

“We get a landing craft or a barge in and we’re all stocked up for about two to three weeks, and then toward the end of the third week things are starting to look a little bit shy,” Thompson said.

Thompson thinks he could eventually reestablish a steady supply chain, but without the ferries, he wonders whether people will just drift away from the village.

“What will be fatal to the business is if we start loosing massive amounts of population,” he said.

One family in another town has already decided to leave.

Amanda Wiese had been thinking about moving her family from her hometown of Cordova, a fishing community across the Prince William Sound from Anchorage, to a nearby community that’s on the road system. Dunleavy announcing his budget last year sealed it, she said.

So Wiese and her husband put their home on the market, were lucky to see it prompt a bidding war, and slowly moved.

The process was more difficult without ferries. Normally, Wiese said, they would have used the system to transport their belongings. Instead, their truck and car were shipped on a private service, her husband flew back and they chartered a friend’s fishing boat to complete the journey this weekend.

“It’s been this long process,” Wiese said.

Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin said the cuts to the ferry service almost immediately became a drag on the economy of his otherwise prospering fishing town. Salmon from the annual catch can fetch as much as $75 per pound, but the next ferry isn’t scheduled to arrive until after the season begins, meaning workers and their equipment will struggle to get there in time. Transportation officials said they’re working on getting a ship out there in April.

“The ferry is an important enough lever that it has pushed us from economic growth into economic decline,” Koplin said. “We can already see that.”

The governor ordered consultants to produce a study presenting options for reducing the ferries’ cost to taxpayers and ensuring their future. Even supporters of the system complain about chronic mismanagement.

“The system does require a lot of money because it has been managed into that situation where it’s the business model, you throw more money at it to keep it running,” Koplin said.

In recent years, two new ships were built at a cost of about $100 million on the assumption that they would connect to a new road out of Juneau. The ships were finished but the road wasn’t, and because they weren’t equipped with crew quarters, they can’t be used on longer routes.

Two high-speed ferries made of aluminum launched 15 years ago proved unsuitable for Alaska’s punishing seas, said MacKinnon, the state transportation commissioner. The state is now trying to sell them.

“This system has been changing course every few years,” MacKinnon said.

He said the proposed budget was intended as the beginning of a process that would lead the ferry system to a more sustainable future.

“The cut that was imposed was supposed to start a conversation,” he said.

The study Dunleavy ordered was released last month and found ending public support for the ferries altogether would be both impractical and deeply unpopular. Now a committee will study its alternative recommendations, while lawmakers work to restore operating funds for the coming year.

One overhaul proposal is to turn over management of the system to public corporations, an idea supporters say could ensure long-term planning is prioritized.

Milos, the formerly stranded passenger, said that kind of approach could work.

“Get it out of the politicians’ control,” she said. “Get some people in there that have some entrepreneurial experience and make these decisions to keep it afloat, not to keep a politician afloat.”

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