A federal funding battle could affect the future of the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Ferry chief Mike Neussl says formula changes in the U.S. Senate’s version of a transportation bill would reduce the amount of money available to fix Alaska ships.
“That’s what repowers the vessels. That’s what does the (capital improvement projects) that the Columbia and fast ferries are undergoing right now,” he told the state’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board in a Nov. 16 meeting.
The funding formula has been based on miles traveled, which puts Alaska at the top of the list. Neussl said the state received about $18 million from the federal government last year.
The Senate version puts more emphasis on the number of passengers and vehicles carried. That would put Alaska behind Washington State, which has much higher ferry ridership.
A House version would not change the formula. A 41-member conference committee, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, will try to negotiate a compromise.
Neussl said that the money can’t fill holes in the system’s day-to-day spending.
“You can’t take those federal dollars and pay salaries and buy fuel and run the operating budget. It’s for capital projects. It has strings attached,” he said.
State funding pays for inspection overhauls needed to keep ferries in compliance with regulations. Neussl said that usually totals about $12 million annually, though only $10 million was allocated for this year.
The news comes as the ferry system ties up four of its 11 ships and slashes its schedule due to state budget cuts.
Neussl said repair funding is becoming more important as ferries age. That’s led to surprises during routine work.
“You go in there, you open up a void, you don’t expect to have to do a lot of work there. [But] you open up and you see we’ve got a lot of work to do; it takes extra time. It probably is going to be late and messes up the schedule and it costs extra money,” he said.
The ferry system is making some changes to the schedule it released in October. That’s the one critics say will hurt port communities’ economies, especially tourism, as well as school travel and cultural events.
An updated version is expected to be released in December.