Alaska state ferry supporters come out in force

Dan Baxter, a life-long resident of a half dozen communities in Southeast Alaska, born in Juneau, and an employee of the Alaska Marine Highway, testifies in support of continued funding for the ferry service during a public hearing held by the House Transportation Committee in Juneau March 12, 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

A long procession of Alaskans signed up to testify Tuesday over the future of the state’s ferry system. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal would significantly reduce state funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

People were given just one minute to make their case to the House Transportation Committee. For people like Harvey Brandt in Sitka, the whole thing was too rushed.

“Figure out another way to run the ferry service, fine,” Brandt said. “But let’s take two or three years to figure that out — “

Brandt was cut off by the committee’s co-chair, Republican Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak. She often had to interrupt to keep things moving. That’s because of the overwhelming number of people signed up to testify or listened in at Legislative Information Offices around the state.

A common refrain was that the ferries are the only link for many coastal communities.

Wayne Carnes of Juneau said the marine highway is to Southeast what the Richardson Highway is to Anchorage, or the George Parks Highway is to Fairbanks.

“If our ferry system gets shut down, it basically means shutting down the equivalent of shutting down all those highways,” Carnes said. “And I’m more than willing to give up my PFD and even pay an income tax so we can fund the essential government services.”

Ferry employees also chimed in. Robb Arnold, a member of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, said reform is necessary. But not the way the Dunleavy administration is doing it.

“Labor is willing and able and honest and wants to find efficiencies in the system,” Arnold said. “Let’s keep the system we have and fix it, and we don’t have to keep spending money on all these consultants.”

He’s referring to the administration’s plan to hire a marine consultant to look at privatization and other options to run ferry service next year. A request for proposals went out last week.

People wait outside the packed room where the House Transportation Committee is holding a hearing regarding the future of the Alaska Marine Highway System, March 12, 2019. They were only a fraction of the record-breaking number of people waiting to testify, mostly via teleconference. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Only one application came back. Amy Deininger, the state procurement officer overseeing the process, said her office is reviewing that sole proposal. An announcement is due on Monday if not sooner.

Critics of that process say hiring a new marine consultant disregards a regional effort underway for the past two years to remake the ferry system.

Dennis Watson chairs a committee steering the Alaska Marine Highway Reform Project. He testified that he sees little good faith in the Dunleavy administration’s efforts.

“What I see in the cuts to the AMHS in the governor’s budget — and a directive to hire a consultant to pick up sticks afterwards — is a directed effort to curtail ferry service permanently,” he said.

Watson is also executive director of the Inter-Island Ferry in Southeast which also faces shutting down as it stands to lose its subsidy in the governor’s proposed budget.

Lawmakers have been quizzing budget officials for scenarios that would avert a total shut down. Three alternatives have been floated that would keep the service running through the next fiscal year — but at a much reduced level.

Legislative staff reported at least 283 people had signed up to testify or registered at Legislative Information Offices around the state. That’s the most recorded since the state began tracking the volume in 2016.

The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to resume taking public testimony at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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