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Alaska ferry service predictability is a priority, say members of group tasked with reshaping system

The M/V Tustumena departs Homer on September 1, 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Achieving consistent, dependable ferry service is the top priority for members of the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group following their first working meeting April 30.

“They just want to know that they can get from point A to point B on a reliable schedule,” Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables said of the region’s residents.

He acknowledged the frequency of future ferry service likely won’t be what folks want, but said it needs to be something communities can build around.

Venables also chairs the state Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, went one step further, saying the need for predictable and reliable service is not even up for debate; it’s how the state gets there that needs to be hashed out.

Stedman said ferry service needs to be a more affordable transportation option for Alaskans who don’t have the means to travel frequently by air.

The Alaska Marine Highway System needs to get “back to the basics” as a system primarily for Alaskans, noting some accommodations must be made because it receives federal highway funding.

“You’ve got to have a transportation corridor; it’s basically one of the most fundamental aspects of an economy,” Stedman said, also emphasizing that he’s open to significant changes in the system’s structure but cutting off service is unacceptable.

“Isolation — that’s not much of a solution,” he said.

Work group chair Adm. Tom Barrett said the first few meetings would focus on establishing the high-level objectives the group will push for. The AMHS Reshaping Group will also devise a strategy for implementing its recommendations and eventually provide the administration and Legislature with a path for how they can further the transition.

Recently retired as president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., Barrett also served as Deputy Transportation secretary under President George W. Bush.

The group was originally scheduled to meet April 16 but that meeting was cancelled for technical difficulties. An administrative meeting to set up the group was held in February. He stressed a need to simplify broad aspects of the system so its operations can be more easily adapted to varying conditions.

Previous ferry system reform efforts produced recommendations that should be considered, Barrett said, suggesting they previously were not accompanied by a way to make them happen.

“The heavy lift will be down in writing an implementation plan for the changes we agree to eventually,” he said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed the nine-member Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group in February after his administration commissioned a study to examine ways to reform the system with a focus on reducing its annual state subsidy. The study, published in January, highlighted many of the challenges facing the system, but did not provide significant recommendations for restructuring its operations or management.

The work group’s recommendations are due by the end of September for implementation in fiscal year 2023, according to the governor’s office.

Former Gov. Bill Walker’s administration partnered with the Southeast Conference on a two-year study finished in 2018 that urged lawmakers to set up the system as a public corporation with an expert board of directors that could plan long-term and be largely above the political fray.

The Alaska Marine Highway System is currently an agency in the Department of Transportation.

That study led to a bill establishing that would have established the new structure, but it received little attention by the Legislature.

Venables and Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, stressed the common message that the current structure greatly inhibits efficient operations — in terms of spending and decision-making, among other issues — because each new governor means new leadership and often a new strategic direction.

“It needs some kind of governing board where it doesn’t become a target each time the administration changes,” Stutes said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy added urgency to the desire to overhaul the ferry system last year when he proposed a roughly 75 percent cut to the system’s annual operating subsidy. The budget would have shut down the system in October after three months of service.

Legislators and the governor ultimately agreed to a cut of just less than 50 percent for a $46 million appropriation that was intended to keep the system running year-round but with several-month gaps in service for some communities.

A series of mechanical and structural problems among the ever-aging vessels and issues with shipyard repairs led DOT to charter private vessels to some communities as a stopgap measure last winter.

Barrett questioned what the financial objective of the system should be — whether that is simply improving cost recovery or finding ways to operate within a set budget.

He said the work group could meet as often as once per week as its work ramps up and he also wants to hear opinions from outside the group, such as from Tribal representatives.

Barrett suggested the group might break into committees to work out the specifics of some of the broader issues facing the ferry system.

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