Better legislative year for ferries, pending governor's decisions

Coastal lawmakers say they made progress this year toward at least halting the deterioration of the state ferry system, with the intent of maintaining reliable service in the years ahead.

Their hopes, however, will have to wait on the governor’s decisions on the budget and also on legislation that would restructure the public advisory board for Alaska Marine Highway System operations.

“It’s all got to get across the finish line,”past the possibility of any gubernatorial vetoes, said Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, co-chair of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee.

The budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is a significant change from past years in that it provides funding for the ferry system for 18 months, through Dec. 31, 2022, rather than the usual budget cycle of 12 months.

The intent is to ensure management knows its budget far enough in advance to better plan and stick with a schedule to serve coastal communities.

Legislators, working with the governor, appropriated almost $113 million in federal pandemic relief funds, along with about $78 million in state dollars, to operate and maintain the ferry system for the next 18 months. On a per-year basis, it’s a small increase over last year’s budget.

The forward funding “hopefully”is a step toward “rebuilding that system,”said Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz.

Though stable operating funding will help, the system needs to keep the fleet in working order, he said. “More operating money is not going to be the answer if the boats are not available.”

The Alaska Marine Highway System has suffered frequent service outages the past 18 months due to mechanical breakdowns aboard vessels, particularly the 58-year-old Matanuska.

The budget appropriations could bring some additional service to communities next winter, Stedman said.

Ortiz said he has received a commitment from system management that any ferry running to Petersburg next winter also would stop in Wrangell. That was not the case last winter, when Wrangell residents could watch as some ships bypassed the community on their way to Petersburg.

Ortiz’s and Stedman’s legislative districts include Wrangell.

The next steps in bolstering the fleet, Ortiz said, will be adding crew quarters to the year-old, 280-foot-long Hubbard, which has never been put into service because it can’t serve its intended Southeast route without accommodations for crew changes required by U.S. Coast Guard limits on work hours.

The governor vetoed funding last year to add the necessary crew quarters. Coastal lawmakers are hopeful for a better outcome this year.

Dunleavy this spring, at an event in Ketchikan, said he backed the 18-month extended funding for the ferries, and expressed his support for steering $15 million in federal dollars toward adding the crew quarters.

Stedman said the system’s next big purchase would be to build a replacement vessel for the 57-year-old Tustemena, one of only two ocean-class ships in the fleet able to serve Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands.

The senator said he is looking for Alaska to get money for the new ferry from the federal infrastructure funding package under negotiation between Congress and the White House.

Though the state budget and federal pandemic financial aid consumed legislative work in the final weeks of the session, lawmakers were able to pass a measure — unanimously, in both chambers — that would restructure the 18-year-old ferry system advisory board, taking away the governor’s authority to appoint all of the members.

The bill, which awaits the governor’s signature into law or veto, designates that the speaker of the House and the Senate president each would appoint two members of the new nine-person board, with the governor naming the other members. Under existing law, the governor names all 12 members of the panel.

The governor’s office said this spring that allowing lawmakers to appoint members to an executive board would violate the separation of powers between the two branches of government, but the Dunleavy administration has been silent on the issue since that one statement.

The Legislature’s own legal counsel raised the same issue in an April 6 memo to lawmakers, but said it may survive a legal challenge because the board is advisory, with no actual authority.

The bill would change the name of the Alaska Marine Transportation Advisory Board to the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board, and instruct it to put together short- and long-term operating plans for the state fleet — which the Department of Transportation would be required to consider.

“It’s not the panacea, but it’s a start,”Stedman said.

Eliminating the provision that allows every new governor to change out the board could make a difference, Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said during House floor debate on the legislation. The legislative change to the board would help prevent “a rotating cast of characters”from advising on long-term plans for the ferry system, he said.


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