GUEST COMMENTARY: Follow reform recommendations to save ferry system
On Sept. 12, 2018, then-candidate Mike Dunleavy delivered a speech to the Southeast Conference in Ketchikan, in which he committed to protecting the Alaska Marine Highway System’s 2019-20 budget.
On Feb. 13, Gov. Dunleavy reversed himself and presented the Legislature with a budget that gutted the ferries. If enacted, it will will shut the system down Oct. 1 of this year and call for another study of the system.
From the first meeting of the committee to its final report and the introduction of legislation last session it was apparent to the committee that reforms were needed if the system was going to meet the transportation needs of Alaska in a sustainable manner.
Since the first ferries were commissioned in the 1960s, there have been numerous economic reports that document the economic benefit the AMHS brings to Alaska. For more than two years, a group of committed Alaskans has reviewed the management and economics of the AMHS and developed a set of recommendations that would reform the current ferry system.
The AMHS Reform Committee engaged Alaska’s leading economic consultants, the McDowell Group, and one of the world’s leading marine engineering and consulting firms, Elliott Bay Design, to lead the effort.
From the first meeting of the committee to its final report and the introduction of legislation last session, it was apparent to the committee that reforms were needed if the system was going to meet the transportation needs of Alaska in a sustainable manner.
The committee studied other ferry systems. It looked at the finance, management and employee relations of these systems. The committee looked at the ferry system, fleet age, fleet configuration, route structure, management and Coast Guard policies and rules.
After two years of study, public hearings and meetings, the committee recommended moving the AMHS out of direct control of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities and setting up a state-owned public corporation to manage it.
The committee made its case for this type of structure in order to isolate the AMHS from political wars and turf battles while stabilizing its finances. The public corporation model is similar to other Alaska public corporations, specifically the Alaska Railroad.
The mission of the proposed public corporation is threefold: manage the Alaska Marine Highway and its assets in a safe and efficient manner; provide essential marine transportation services, connecting rural communities with economic and service hubs while supporting the overall transportation needs of the state; and provide for continuity of operations and public accountability.
Alaskans know that the ferry system needs reform, but the governor’s “beach the boats” budget is not the way to do it. We cannot eliminate the AMHS just because the Office of Management and Budget doesn’t understand that it is a critical part of our transportation network.
Shutting down the AMHS would have the same economic impact on coastal communities as shutting down the Glenn Highway at the Palmer interchange would have on communities from Palmer to Tok.
It is the responsibility of the administration to support a transportation plan that will keep communities connected and businesses open, not just one that eliminates our transportation infrastructure and devastates our rural and coastal Alaska communities.
A plan to do this has been presented to the state. It deserves special consideration before more studies are undertaken.
If that means we need to use Permanent Fund earnings for what they were set up to provide, we need to use them. One way or the other, education, health care, senior services and transportation have to be paid for. One way or another, the citizens of Alaska will pay for services cut by the proposed budget.
It is time to stop using smokescreens and studies on services that have been studied to death. We do not need another study. The governor should start with the plan presented last fall to reform the AMHS and build from it.
For those interested in the AMHS Reform Study, go to www.AMHSreform.com.
Greg Wakefield is a member of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, AMHS Reform Committee and a business owner. He lives in Anchorage. Dave Kensinger is a member of the AMHS Reform Committee, former chairman of the MTAB and a business owner. He lives in Petersburg. Michael Anderson is a member of AMHS Reform Committee and an artist. He lives in Cordova.