Southeast communities angered by Parnell shift on ferry

JUNEAU — Two hearings by the both of the Alaska Legislature’s transportation committees did little to calm the seas of discontent among Southeast villages with Gov. Sean Parnell’s summary rejection of their concept-level plans for a new Panhandle ferry.

A new conceptual plan, due from yet-to-be-confirmed Transportation Commissioner Pat Kemp sometime after Feb. 4, is expected to respond to, if not satisfy, concerns with the utility and safety of the downsized project.

The report will be the subject of future hearings, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said after two joint sessions with the House counterpart.

Kemp’s acknowledged ignorance of the state law requiring consultation with the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, or MTAB, on his replacement of the ferry service director also raised the wary attention of Southwest ferry communities preparing to join the panel.

On Jan. 24, coincidentally the same date as the second committee hearing, Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens introduced SB 24, his bill to add MTAB seats for Gustavus and six Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island communities.

Stevens said the timing was coincidental and the bill is intended to start the western half of the ferry system on the same MTAB-based planning process for eventual replacement of the M/V Tustumena, which plies the Seward to Unalaska run.

Stevens said the governor’s wholesale rejection of local input on planning for the replacement of the M/V Malaspina was troubling.

The episode is also offered a glimpse of prospective regional tension if serious state spending cuts become necessary.

“The ferry is an ever-increasing, never-ending drain on the public budget,” said Frank McQueary, founder of the Anchorage Road Coalition, during the Jan. 24 hearing.

The governor created the squall when he announced in a Dec. 4, 2012, speech in Ketchikan that plans developed over several years with constant community input for a 350-foot “Alaska Class Ferry,” were over as much as $47 million over budget and canceled. Two, 255-foot to 305-foot “shuttle ferries” would be built for the $120 million lawmakers had already allocated for the project.

Wrangell Rep. Peggy Wilson, who authored the bill that created the MTAB, said she had been informed of Parnell’s plans only the day before the speech. No MTAB member got advanced notice, Chairman Robert Venables said.

Kemp, who was named commissioner in December, compounded the slight by failing to consult with MTAB, as Wilson’s law requires, before replacing the head of the ferry system.

“I wasn’t aware of that law,” Kemp admitted at the Jan. 17 hearing, adding that his Law Department counsel said it didn’t matter. His replacement of Capt. Mike Neussl, who was also a deputy commissioner, with Capt. John Falvey as ferry director was part of an overall management reorganization.

Deputy commissioners will now have general areas of oversight as part of his “executive team,” but will not directly manage any DOT sections.

“I wanted to change that model back to the way the other agencies are and back to the way it was meant to be when the department was created,” Kemp explained at the hearing.

He said the original 2006 “statement of services” for the Malaspina’s replacement called for a shuttlecraft, with bow and stern “roll on-roll off” vehicle loading capability to operate as a “day boat.”

So-called “ro-ro” capability for past vehicle transfers in port is critical because “day boat” means a vessel capable of completing Juneau/Haines/Skagway sailings within 12 hours, the limit for a single crew shift.

“Somehow, over the next few years the project changed,” Kemp told lawmakers.

He suggested no meeting records were available to explain the change but when pressed by Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said, “It can be mainly attributed to public involvement. The users of the ferries wanted more amenities.”

He compared the changes to a request for plans to “just fix the pavement” on a 20-mile road “with public involvement someone wants sidewalks, a bike path and a four-lane.”

Parnell’s only public support during the hearings came from Juneau’s tourism-dominated business community.

“The plan was to lengthen roads and to shorten the ferry system because we can’t afford to keep subsidizing the ferry system,” said Cathie Roemmich, CEO of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

Juneau remains deeply, and almost equally divided on the road access proposal. Kemp’s career a DOT road builder and, like Parnell, backer of the land route also raised suspicions.

Ken Russo, the retired Skagway harbormaster, called the governor’s decision “completely political to cut the ferries and build the road.”

The mayors of Haines, Skagway, Kake and Sitka blasted his decision and said input from the people who will be riding the vessels produced practical and necessary changes.

“The ferry your father inherited, the Chilkat, was nicknamed the ‘Vomit Comet,’” Skagway Mayor Stan Selver reminded Egan, with reference to former Gov. Bill Egan.

Kevin Shipley, superintendent of schools for Kake, said the ferries are “my school bus for my children to go to competitions. Reliability and safety are concerns with small boats.”

Beside rider comfort, several speakers said planning led to a larger boat that, unlike the original proposal, would offer greater scheduling flexibility if it could replace mainline vessels crossing the open waters of Dixon Entrance to Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Stan Hjort, a retired ferry system engineer in Petersburg called the fast ferries Chenega and Fairweather “fiascos” with weather-related limitations that make them unreliable.

Tkacz is the Southeast correspondent for the Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].

01/30/2013 - 11:52am