Walker budget proposes fix for spring ferry funding foul-up

The ferry Malaspina makes a rare appearance near downtown Sitka in 2010. All marine highway vessels will have to shut down this spring if a budget gap isn’t filled. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Gov. Bill Walker’s new budget fills a gap that could have shut the ferry system down for much of the spring. The spending plan, released Dec. 15, also funds the full Alaska Marine Highway schedule for the next fiscal year.

Listen now

complex provision in this fiscal year’s budget cut about a fifth of the marine highway’s funding.

If the money isn’t replaced, General Manager Capt. John Falvey said ships will stop sailing.

“We feel we can operate the ferry system until approximately the middle of April 2018. Then we would in essence have to shut the system down,” Falvey said.

It wouldn’t start up again until the next budget year starts July 1. So all ferries would be tied up for about two and a half months.

But there’s a remedy in the Walker administration’s budget. It restores the funds – about $24 million. And that would allow the ferry system to continue serving its about 35 port communities — if it remains in the spending plan.

“I would think the Legislature will support it,” Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said. Stedman chairs his chamber’s transportation committee.

Stedman said he expects opposition. But so far, House and Senate Finance Committee leaders haven’t disapproved.

“The co-chairs have been notified over a month ago by letter that this was coming and if they didn’t agree to it to let the administration know. As far as I know, there was no objections to it,” Stedman said.

The Alaska Marine Highway System money is in what’s called the supplemental budget. It includes appropriations that fills gaps in this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Funding for the fiscal year starting July 1 is listed in the operating budget. Walker’s version proposes a small drop in ferry system funding, less than 1 percent.

The fast ferry Fairweather docks at Juneau’s Auke Bay Ferry Terminal in 2013. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News – Juneau)

But Falvey said service will increase slightly, because some ships are cheaper to sail than others.

“We will run the Columbia a little less and the Malaspina a little bit more. Because of the ship configuration that we have this year, even with a little less money, we will be able to run a few more weeks of service,” Falvey said.

Next year’s marine highway budget is just under $140 million.

Walker’s spending plan also includes money for a small, separate nonprofit Inter-Island Ferry Authority.

“It’s the thing that keeps us solvent,” General Manager Dennis Watson said.

It sails one route connecting Hollis on Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan.

“We come within 15 to 20 percent of making our operating costs out of the fare box. So we fall a little bit short at the end of the year. And this helps. This makes up that,” Watson said.

The amount is $250,000, the same as has been requested in earlier years.

The governor’s budget lists his administration’s priorities. But the Legislature will make the final decisions. That means it could take months before either ferry system knows what it’s funding will be.

Previous articleUA president: Flat funding limits education, training and economic development
Next articleModifying houses so seniors can stay in their homes
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.