Alaska Marine Highway System Proposed for Onboard Slot Machines

Posted on: January 30, 2024, 02:37h. 

Last updated on: February 3, 2024, 12:43h.

The Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) is once again being targeted for slot machines through legislation in the Juneau capital.

Alaska Marine Highway System slot machines
An Alaska Marine Highway System ferry. Legislation in Juneau seeks to place Las Vegas-style slot machines aboard the ferries to generate new tax revenue for the state and better fund the Marine Highway network. (Image: Alaska Marine Highway System)

Alaska Rep. Jesse Sumner (R-Wasilla) filed House Bill 197 last year, but the statute never made it out of the House Transportation Committee. The legislation, which seeks to establish a legal framework to allow travelers aboard the state’s ferry boats to gamble on Las Vegas-style slot machines, is back for 2024.

Sumner reintroduced HB197 last week. The House Transportation Committee is first considering the measure.

Sumner says the tax benefit from allowing slot machines onboard the state’s Marine Highway System would generate much-needed revenue for the state enterprise. The Republican cites state reports that the marine highway system will be operating at a loss each year.

The introduction of electronic gaming on AMHS ferries has the potential to generate additional revenue through fees, taxes, and a percentage of gaming income, similar to land-based casinos, contributing to the funding of maritime services,” Sumner said.

The lawmaker believes slot machines aboard the ferries would attract new tourists and foster regional economic growth by reinvesting gaming-related revenue. He believes many Alaskans would also ride the ferries simply to gamble.

Fiscal Projections Questioned

The AMHS operates along the south-central coast of the state, as well as the eastern Aleutian Islands and the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia. The ferries facilitate about 350K passengers and more than 100K vehicles annually.

The Marine Highway System spans 3,500 miles. The year-round operation provides essential transportation to approximately 35 coastal communities, many inaccessible by road.

Sumner’s statute would allow slot machines to be turned on once the ferries sail three miles from land. He believes the state could reap $20 million a year from ferry slot machine taxes, which he considers conservative.

Opponents, however, say Sumner’s bill as written would only allow slot machines on a few routes, as most ships remain within three miles of the shore. Those supportive of the ferry slot machines say a simple solution would be to reroute the boats at least three miles from land.

Speaking with the Alaska Beacon, Craig Tornga, the marine director for the AMHS, said the only ferries that currently sail beyond three miles offshore are services between Kodiak Island and the mainland, Dutch Harbor across the Gulf of Alaska, and some spots within Prince William Sound. Tornga also questioned whether the aging ferries could accommodate the substantial electrical needs of slot machines.

Not many lawmakers or government officials want to increase ferry rates, as fares are already pricey. For a direct ride from Juneau to Sitka for two adults and a car, the sailing price is $364. The same itinerary sans an automobile is $178.

State Gaming Law

The three-mile condition is critical, as Alaska’s current law prohibits casino gambling. However, Alaska defines its maritime boundary, sometimes called territorial waters, to cover three miles from the shore.   

Allowing a ferry boat to offer slot machines once off the Alaska coast by at least three miles, Sumner says, would allow the gambling terminals to operate without violating the state’s Administrative Code.