Push begins in the Legislature to restore ferry service

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, speaks during a House Floor Session on March 27, 2017. (Skip Gray/KTOO)

House lawmakers have taken a first step to bolster funding to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Members of a House Transportation subcommittee approved an additional $11.3 million appropriation Thursday designed to restore year-round ferry service to stranded communities. (With projected revenues from ticket sales, the budget authorization totaled $18.7 million in spending authority.)

“The intent is to provide basic minimal service to coastal communities in Alaska by the marine highway system,” said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who championed the amendment.

It passed 6-3. Reps. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, Mel Gillis, R-Anchorage, and Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla, were opposed.

The budget amendment will need approval by both legislative bodies and be signed by the governor.

A $43 million cut last year has produced bare bones ferry schedules leaving some communities without winter service. Reduced funding for maintenance also forced the state to rely on just one mainline ferry to provide regional service. That ship, the Matanuska, broke down last month, idling all but a small ferry that shuttles between Ketchikan and Metlakatla until March.

Hundreds of people rallied across the state this week for fully funded ferries as some coastal communities face shortages of food and goods from a lack of service.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has also proposed $12 million in supplemental funding in the current year’s budget. But the money would pay for existing operations and overhaul work, it wouldn’t expand service that’s at historic lows.