By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

U.S. Transportation Secretary rides state ferry to Haines


August 23, 2023

James Brooks/Alaska Beacon

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski listen to Thomas Turner (right), chief mate of the ferry Hubbard, explain the ship's operations. The secretary and senator traveled aboard the state ferry from Juneau to Haines on Aug. 16.

When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg's flight from Juneau to Haines was rained out on Aug. 16, he changed plans and did what Alaskans have done for decades: He boarded a ferry.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski traveled with Buttigieg and said the last-minute switch in travel plans "was a typical Alaska jump ball."

It was an appropriate capstone to Buttigieg's three-day Alaska visit: a trip intended to emphasize the benefits of the Biden administration's infrastructure law, passed by Congress in 2021. As of July, that law has sent $5.2 billion in federal funding to Alaska.

The Alaska Marine Highway System will receive more than $286 million. That figure, which includes funding for new ferry terminals, ships and operations, is more than the ferry system's annual budget.

For the first time, the federal government will help subsidize ferry operations in Alaska. That's a major policy change. While the federal government underwrites most of the cost of hard-surface roads and can underwrite the cost of new ferry boats, Alaska has borne the cost of operating them.

After years of state-directed budget cuts, particularly in Gov. Mike Dunleavy's first year in office in 2019, the system's supporters say that money will be a godsend.

"It is salvaging what was the certain demise of the ferry system and allowing a modern version to emerge that can serve us in the future," said Robert Venables, director of Southeast Conference, the regional economic development organization for Southeast Alaska.

"It's incredibly important," said Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes, who traveled with Buttigieg on the trip to Haines. "Let's face it. Alaska is very, very fortunate in relation to the federal dollars we get. The challenge is using those dollars in a way where all Alaskans get to benefit from them."

On Aug. 16, Buttigieg spent four hours aboard the ferry Hubbard, talking with Murkowski, tribal and governmental leaders before touring Haines, whose Lutak cargo dock is slated to receive $20 million in federal infrastructure aid.

Murkowski, together with Sen. Dan Sullivan, were two of the key Republican votes needed in the U.S. Senate to pass the law through the chamber, and Murkowski used Buttigieg's trip to re-emphasize the importance of the ferry system to Alaska.

Alaska is slated to receive $8.6 million to design a new ferry, more than $68 million toward building a new mainline ferry, and $46 million to build an electric ferry. The latter boat could run between Haines, Skagway and Juneau, Buttigieg suggested, taking advantage of charging up with the clean hydroelectricity used in those communities.

The law also includes more than $45 million for new ferry terminals, including some in Southeast to serve the state-funded Alaska-class ferries, which were built even though the state failed to construct the ferry terminals needed to support them.

In part because the state has retired so many ferries, the Alaska-class ships are being pressed into routes they weren't designed for, and the state has spent tens of millions of dollars to add crew quarters aboard the Alaska-class ferry Hubbard, allowing it to sail for longer stretches of time.

Federal infrastructure money will pay for similar quarters aboard the Tazlina, the other Alaska-class ship.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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