DOT: Alaska ferries to receive $5M in federal stimulus cash

The Aurora, a 235-foot Alaska state ferry, approaches the dock in Whittier, its departure point for its trip across Prince William Sound to Cordova. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

An initial $5 million in federal stimulus funding will go to the state ferry system. That’s according to a Thursday statement from the state Department of Transportation responding to CoastAlaska’s questions over how much of the $1.25 billion in federal money would be steered towards the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Alaska received a total of $29 million for rural transit as part of a larger $145 million grant from the Federal Transportation Administration through the CARES Act.

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“DOT&PF is working with the eligible rural transit entities such as the bus systems, Care-a-Vans and the Alaska Marine Highway System to determine how to equitably disperse these funds,” the agency said in a statement.

The agency says the federal stimulus funding can be used for extra cleaning and personal protection equipment, wages for employees out of work due to the pandemic and cleaning state buildings and vessels.

Read our collected coverage of ferry service problems in Alaska this year.

“DOT is planning to grant this money out in phases in order to determine the actual need,” the statement said. “At this point in time, it is estimated that AMHS will get $5 million with the first distribution.”

State officials say a slowdown in demand due to the pandemic has caused it to delay returning to full ferry service until summer. In a separate statement, the agency says other vessels will return to service in June and July.

“AMHS has had a very successful winter overhaul period,” the agency said. “Currently the Columbia, Kennicott and Tustumena are all in the completion phase of their overhauls. The extensive steel repair project and overhaul of LeConte has gone smoothly and the vessel is scheduled to re-float this week.”

The legislature also added funding to overhaul the ferry Aurora — the LeConte’s sister ship — which DOT officials say should be back in service later this year.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed nearly $13 million in appropriations for the ferry system, arguing that still leaves more for operations than last year. In a call with reporters Wednesday, he says he’s waiting for his working group on the future of the fleet to report back its recommendations this fall.

“We’re going to wait for their feedback to see where we’re going to go and how we’re going to go to assist in transportation in the coastal areas of Alaska,” Dunleavy said. “But there was money in the state budget to extend the schedules and we are working on getting those boats repaired to get them ready to roll.”

There are currently two ferries running: the Tazlina servicing Lynn Canal communities and Southeast villages. The smaller Lituya is running shuttle service between Ketchikan and Metlakatla.