U.S. Senate bill could cut Alaska ferry funding

The ferry Taku sails into the Wrangell Narrows on its way south in 2013. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
The ferry Taku sails into the Wrangell Narrows on its way south in 2013. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

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.

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.

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