Ferry reform effort gets a legislative boost

Extra ferry life rings lean against other spare parts at the Ketchikan Marine Engineering Facility at Ward Cove in 2014. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News – Juneau)

The effort to reform the Alaska Marine Highway System took a step forward Thursday.

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The House Transportation Committee voted to instruct staff to draft legislation that would establish a public corporation to take over the system. But it’s a long way from a done deal.

The ferries are run by the state Department of Transportation.

The plan would shift control to an independent board that could make its own decisions about labor contracts, fares and other parts of the operation.

It would also forward-fund the system, allowing for better schedule planning.

During the committee meeting, Anchorage Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp said a seven-member board of experts would provide better oversight than 60 ever-changing members of the Legislature.

“Imagine if we were trying run the Anchorage International Airport as a legislature,” Kopp said. “It would be a disaster. But it’s the No. 4 air cargo airport in the world and entirely successful.”

Several other members of the House Transportation Committee also expressed support at the hearing.

Big Lake Republican Rep. Mark Neuman is intrigued by the marine highway reform plan, but he’s not ready to ask for a bill.

“There’s still a lot of questions to be answered and this is something that’s going to take massaging of a couple years to work through,” Neuman said. “I can understand how that can work, let alone trying to figure out how we’re going to come up with a couple hundred million dollars for a fund.”

The committee voted 5-2 in favor of writing a reform bill, which will be discussed and modified at future meetings.

Two other ferry reform bills, addressing funding and ports, have already been introduced, but haven’t had a hearing.

Action will likely wait until the next legislative session.

The plan came out of a task force set up by the state and the Southeast Conference, the regional development organization that pushed for the ferry system’s creation more than 50 years ago.

Reform would create a more flexible system that could more quickly respond to problems, task force consultant Susan Bell of the McDowell Group told lawmakers.

“That financial expertise that the board would lend to guide the organization has value,” Bell said. “By maintaining the Alaska Marine Highway as a public corporation, it maintains some of the existing strengths, but it addresses some of the existing limitations.”

The reform effort is in response to large cuts in state funding, which have shrunk the number of ships and sailings.

While the impetus has come from Southeast, the initiative includes leaders from Southcentral and Southwest communities where ferries also sail.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.