House holds meeting on Alaska’s struggling ferry system

Reps. Sara Hannan (D-Juneau) and Bart LeBon (R-Fairbanks) hear an update on the Alaska Marine Highway System during a Feb. 5, 2019 meeting in the Capitol. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Legislature)

Lawmakers in the Alaska House of Representatives called an informal hearing on the state of the state’s ferry system.

Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes and Dillingham Democrat Rep. Bryce Edgmon — both boosters of the state-funded service – called Tuesday’s meeting in advance of cost-cutting efforts by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

The governor’s recently proposed supplemental budget includes using nearly half of the ferry system’s cash reserves to fund other projects.

Coastal lawmakers spoke in turn how state-funded ferries are vital to port communities off the road system.

“When the Trusty Tusty as we call her is down,” Edgmon said, “or the Kennicott can’t make service delivery to some of the smaller communities because inability to dock at some some old, broken down dock that’s been there a long time — it’s highly noticeable.”

A 2016 study by a Juneau economic research firm underscored the Alaska Marine Highway System’s economic impact.

Susan Bell of the McDowell Group delivered an updated presentation to the House lawmakers. It said the ferries serve 33 ports — 28 of them off the road system.

Its workforce is also significant in the state: more than 1,000 Alaskans in 44 communities work for the ferry system with an in-state payroll of more than $100 million.

The (ferry) system is serving the coastal areas but the impacts are statewide,” Bell said..

The McDowell Group’s report also charted decreased funding by the legislature: in fiscal year 2013, lawmakers allocated $124 million to support the system. By fiscal year 2019, lawmakers only approved $86 million to the system.

Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz said the effects of nearly $40 million less in annual state funding are felt by businesses in his community.

“I hear a lot of concern because of the fact that there’s less and less service out there,” Ortiz said. “And so therefore there’s less ability for the Marine Highway System to bring business, if you will, to some of these different companies.”

Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables said the economies in coastal communities are paying the cost for breakdowns in ferry service.

“With the ferry aging and breaking down or not being funded,” said Venables, who also chairs the state’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board, “those are uncertainties that businesses just can’t rely on.”

Venables has been advocating for the Alaska Marine Highway Reform Project. The initiative envisions morphing the state ferry system from an arm of the state’s Department of Transportation to a public corporation with its own board of directors.

Advocates of the plan say it would insulate the ferry system from political pressure and allow more forward planning.