Mary Siroky, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities speaks Wednesday morning during the Alaska Municipal League’s Legislative Conference. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Mary Siroky, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities speaks Wednesday morning during the Alaska Municipal League’s Legislative Conference. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

‘A perfect storm’: DOT deputy says everything that could go wrong with ferries did

DOT deputy commissioner says aging fleet, reduced budget and more led to ferry problems

Marla Howard’s question was more of a pleading request.

Howard, a Kake resident and city council member, asked Mary Siroky, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, to please restore ferry service to the small communities that depend on it.

“That’s all I wanted to say,” Howard said with emotion and nerves in her voice. “Please give us our road back, which is the Alaska Marine Highway. We’re Alaskans also.”

[Locals send food to Southeast communities without ferry service]

Howard said she is fearful of Kake’s future and the future of the school. She said the number of businesses in Kake has dwindled over the years and losing the ferry system makes a bad situation worse.

It was one of a handful of charged questions and statements about the Alaska Marine Highway System directed at Siroky Wednesday morning during a presentation at the Alaska Municipal League’s Legislative Conference held at the Baranof Hotel, Best Western Signature Collection. Siroky was the last of a series of five state department employees to speak in the morning, and she faced by far the most intense questioning.

Another member of the audience from Yakutat asked who could be fired in light of the state of the ferry system.

“Me,” said Siroky, who announced her re-retirement earlier this month. The reply drew some laughs.

Siroky said the department is aware of the importance of the AMHS and working to get more vessels running.

She said reduced ferry service in coastal communities is the result of an aging fleet, a $43 million budget cut and unforeseen mechanical problems. She said retaining employees and working with unions also present challenges to the AMHS.

“We are working as hard as we can to get our vessels operating,” Siroky said. “It is a compilation of perfect storms. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

Kodiak Mayor Pat Branson speaks with Mary Siroky, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, after a presentation and question-and-answer session Wednesday morning. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Kodiak Mayor Pat Branson speaks with Mary Siroky, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, after a presentation and question-and-answer session Wednesday morning. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

During the presentation, Siroky was asked by Kodiak Mayor Pat Branson when Gov. Mike Dunleavy would make appointments to a nine-person AMHS Work Group. Branson told the Empire Kodiak last received ferry service in mid-January and doesn’t expect it to resume until the end of April.

Siroky said appointments were expected sometime in the next two weeks.

The appointments were announced in a release from the Office of the Governor near the conclusion of the meeting. Appointed members of the public were Tom Barrett, John Torgerson and Wanetta Ayers; Aviation Advisory Board appointee is Lee Ryan; Roads and Highways Advisory Board Appointee is Tony Johansen; Maritime Transportation Advisory Board appointee is Robert Venables; labor appointee is Ben Goldrich; and legislative appointees are Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka; and Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

Barrett, who retired from the United States Coast Guard, will serve as the Work Group’s Chairperson, according to the Office of the Governor. He most recently retired as president of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, and also served as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

After the meeting, Branson was among a pack of AML members who asked Siroky additional questions.

Branson said one of her questions was whether the administration understood the importance of a functioning Alaska Marine Highway System.

“I’m going to ask the governor that when he’s here tomorrow,” Branson said.

[Governor’s chief of staff says getting ferries running is AMHS top priority]

Siroky said in a short interview after the meeting the administration is aware coastal Alaskans are deeply concern with the AMHS.

She said the governor and the DOT&PF are working to balance the cost of providing transportation infrastructure to the entirety of the state.

“The Marine Highway System serves 100,000 people,” Siroky said. “There’s 700,000 in the state.”

• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

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