By Larry Persily
State lawmakers go back to work in Juneau on Jan. 21 and more funding for the state ferries is a priority for Skagway’s two legislators.
“I’m still not good at predicting how others feel,” Rep. Sara Hannan, a first-term legislator, said of her colleagues and their attitude toward restoring some of the massive chunk of state funding that was cut from the ferry system budget this year.
Due to the service cutbacks, Skagway will see just one ferry a week from Jan. 25 to March 6, and reduced service throughout the winter.
“One ferry a week is not going to cut it and will quickly have an adverse affect on our community,” Mayor Andrew Cremata said in his report to the borough assembly Dec. 11.
The Legislature this year cut a deal with Gov. Mike Dunleavy — who had proposed slicing more than two-thirds of state funding for the ferries — and settled on a one-third hack of about $43 million.
The governor’s proposed budget for the next scal year, which starts July 1, isn’t looking much better for ferry service. Even with a small budget increase, mostly to cover fuel and wages, the Alaska Marine Highway System (AHMS) will be stretched to serve its 35 stops from Bellingham, Washington, through Southeast and South-central Alaska out to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.
Among the challenges for next year, listed in the Department of Transportation budget book released Dec. 11: “Providing basic essential transportation services to the entire AMHS route structure using fewer ships and at less cost to stay within budgetary constraints.”
“AMHS will provide significantly less services, leaving many communities without service for up to six months,” the budget write-up said.
“Communities will have service gaps. There’s no doubt about that,” Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Mary Siroky told Coast Alaska public radio. “But I don’t know if a service gap is going to be six months, five months, four months; we don’t have that figured out.”
Though the department has released its summer schedule by December the past three years, the 2020 summer timetable is not out yet. Bookings are available only through May 1.
Cordova and Kodiak were hit hardest by ferry system cutbacks this year. Cordova is without service for almost eight months, from late September 2019 into May 2020, and Kodiak will be without ferries from mid-January to late April.
Legislators this past session accepted the one-third reduction in state funding based on “estimates from the Department of Transportation that showed a lot more service,” Sen. Jesse Kiehl said Dec. 12. “I think there is some acknowledgement that we didn’t get what we thought we were getting in the deal.”
Kiehl and Hannan represent Skagway and Haines, as part of their Juneau-based districts.
“Our economies and communities need year-round schedule certainty,” for reliable passenger and freight traffic, Kiehl said.
Both legislators said they will press for more ferry funding.
The Dunleavy administration is looking at long-term changes to the system. The Department of Transportation in May signed a $250,000 contract with Anchorage-based Northern Economics to look at “options available for reshaping” the Alaska Marine Highway System, including a public-private partnership. The consultants submitted their report to the department back in October, but the state has declined requests to release it. A December release has now been delayed to January.
“After this report is released, we need to hold a town hall meeting to discuss our options in Skagway moving forward,” Mayor Crematasaid in his Dec. 11 report to the borough assembly.
Kiehl said converting the ferry system from an agency within the Department of Transportation to its own state corporation “has potential.” In particular, giving it more independence, he said. “We’ve had … political appointees running the marine highway system,” often without the needed expertise, the senator said.
Regardless whether the ferry system someday becomes a separate state corporation, like the Alaska Railroad, it will always need statefunding, “just like asphalt,” Kiehlsaid.
The pain of reduced ferry service is not limited to coastal communities, Hannan said. For example, some Wasilla fishermen who work in the Cordova area had to miss a late-season opening so that they could get their boats aboard the last ferries for the return drive home to the Matanuska Valley. The same lack of ferry service will cause them to miss next year’s early fishing, she said.
“I am hoping that the Wasilla people have been able to express (to their legislators) how it impacted their economy,” Hannan said. “I am hoping that the pain we all saw coming” will push Southcentral and Interior legislators to support some restoration of funding. “I do see there is interest in trying to rebuild the system,” Kiehl said, though he acknowledged it will be challenging to win legislative approval for a budget increase for the state ferries in a year when state revenues are far short of meeting public service needs.