Sen. Murkowski is right: Don't mess it up

Sen. Lisa Murkowski succeeded in convincing her colleagues that the Alaska Marine Highway System deserves more federal funding. The proof of her success in helping to write last year’s federal spending legislation is the $284 million in grants announced last week for new ferries, repairs to old vessels, dock improvements and better service to small communities.

The state will need to put up about $105 million in matching funds for the grants. Some of that already has been appropriated and the rest can come during this year’s legislative session.

Besides using state money to cover a share of the costs, the Legislature and the governor’s other responsibility is to use the federal money to rebuild and restore the ferry system — not merely accept the federal checks and cut state funding to the ferries, resulting in no benefit to Alaskans.

Don’t mess it up, the senator cautioned in a press conference last week, promising to “personally bird-dog” how the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act money is used to ensure that it does good.

“I am pretty attached to what we have built here,” she said of the ferry system. “I am determined to make sure that the system that worked for me and my family when I grew up (mid-1960s) in Wrangell” works well for years to come.

No one can argue that the ferry system needs help, which means money. Most of the vessels are old and need costly repairs. It seems some of the ships have been in the shop more often than a bargain used car that even the seller admitted “needs work.”

Anticipating a federal windfall in funding from the Infrastructure Act — separate from last week’s grants — Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year proposed deleting just about all of the state dollars in the ferry system budget and paying the bills with federal money. The Legislature wisely rejected that opportunistic budget maneuver that would have done nothing to fix the ships, repair the service or rebuild passenger traffic.

The senator is too polite to explicitly call out the governor and legislators to sternly warn against using the latest and greatest round of federal grants to cut state funding for the ferry system. But her message is clear: The $284 million is intended to help improve the system’s reliability and longevity, not help the state balance its budget.

“This is historic funding,” the senator said last week.

She is right. Historic and larger than ferry travelers ever imagined.

Alaska’s elected officials and marine highway management need to spend the gift wisely. This shipload of cash only sails once. Let’s not mess it up.

— Wrangell Sentinel


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