By Larry Persily –
The Alaska Marine Highway System isn’t nearly back to where it was a year ago, but at least service has resumed to some Southeast communities and the Legislature looks likely to restore a slice of last year’s severe funding cut instigated by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
It’s unknown, however, how much the additional funding for vessel repairs and operations might add sailings to coastal communities. The Alaska Department of Transportation has not released any specific plans for how the extra money could improve service.
Skagway and Haines went without any ferry service for seven weeks from mid-January when the Matanuska broke down until the Tazlina came out of winter maintenance and called on the Lynn Canal communities March 6. The state was unable to substitute another ferry for the Matanuska because all of the fleet was either in winter layup, out for repairs, or held out of service to save money.
The lack of any ferry runs in Southeast created hardships for school travel, timber and fisheries and retail businesses, medical-related travel, even sewage pumping in Gustavus and Pelican as the service truck from Juneau couldn’t make the trip to empty out septic tanks.
Responding to complaints from small communities cut off from any service, the state Department of Transportation contracted with Allen Marine to run a passenger boat — no freight — between Juneau, Angoon, Tenakee and Kake on Feb. 29 and March 3.
Bringing the Tazlina back to work restored service to Angoon and also Hoonah, and the ferry will pull into Skagway twice a week in March and four times a week in April. The Columbia’s first stop in Skagway is scheduled for April 25, as the system builds up to the start of its summer schedule, followed by the LeConte in town on May 17 and the Matanuska on June 10 — assuming it is repaired by then.
After spending six weeks tied to the dock in Juneau, the Matanuska departed on March 6 for Ketchikan and the Vigor Shipyard, where the ferry had undergone a two-year, $47 million overhaul, including new engines. Not even three months after returning to service in November, the reduction gear system in one of the engines broke down in January.
Looking past the winter-spring scheduling problems, the Alaska Marine Highway System released its summer schedule on March 2, covering May 1 through Sept. 30. Skagway is scheduled for three or four ferries a week under the new timetable, with fewer connections to Haines than in past years.
And while coastal residents and businesses welcomed the resumption of service, even if it’s only one ship in March, lawmakers in the state capital are working to put together a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Legislature also is trying to fill the major gaps in the current year’s appropriations, created in large part by the governor’s aggressive budget-cutting vetoes last year.
The House on Feb. 26 approved $299 million in state money to fill gaps in this year’s spending plan that ends June 30. It would be the largest supplemental budget in state history, with much of the money going to cover Medicaid services shortchanged by the vetoes. The state expects it will run out of money before the end of the month to pay health care providers unless it gets supplemental funding.
The supplemental budget, which is awaiting action in the Senate, also includes $5 million for ferry overhaul work and $7 million for ferry system operations and other expenses, including $250,000 for the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Group, which Dunleavy created in January and filled the seats in February. He has directed the group to report back by Sept. 30 with recommendations to restructure the ferry system, focusing “on the future finances and service levels.”
No one from Skagway was named to the working group. Retired Coast Guard Admiral Tom Barrett, of Anchorage, will chair the group of seven public members and two legislators: Sen. Bert Stedman, of Sitka, and Rep. Louise Stutes, of Kodiak.
If approved by the Legislature, the $250,000 working group budget would be the governor’s second quarter-million-dollar “reshaping” quest to cut state funding for the ferry system.
The new work group would follow on last year’s $250,000 state contract with Anchorage-based Northern Economics, which was asked to look at “options available for reshaping” the ferry system, including whether a private operator could take it over and save the state the expense. The report determined that privatizing the system is not economically feasible — service to all the coastal communities isn’t self-sufficient, regardless who owns it.
For the state fiscal year that starts July 1, the House on March 3 approved a state operating budget that adds about $18 million to the governor’s request for the ferries, bringing the Alaska Marine Highway System operating budget to $119 million — still far back from the fiscal 2019 spending plan of $140 million.
The budget bill is in the Senate, awaiting its consideration. The governor has not said whether he would accept the $18 million House increase or veto the additional money if it gets through the Senate.
The Legislature faces a constitutional adjournment deadline of May 20, though lawmakers or the governor could call a special session if they are unable to reach a budget deal by the deadline.