Bill would let communities fund ferry service directly

Speaking to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott recalled a time when he was homesick.

Attending college in Washington state, he couldn’t exactly drive home to Yakutat, so he did the next best thing. He went to Seattle and met the brand new ferry Malaspina.

“It was a symbol of Alaska early after statehood and a symbol of the place that we could become,” he told the Chamber Thursday during its weekly luncheon.

With the ferry system facing steep budget cuts and less service, Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau has proposed a bill that attempts to recreate that kind of connection between Alaskans and the Alaska Marine Highway.

On Thursday, Kito’s House Bill 292 received its first hearing in the House Transportation Committee. A simple piece of legislation, it consists of only one line of text, stating that communities will be allowed to contribute money to keep the Marine Highway running.

“My hope is we’ll make the marine highway system more effective and efficient throughout the state,” Kito said.

He said he envisions the contribution as nonbinding. If a community gives $1 million, it shouldn’t expect to get $1 million more in service from the ferry system. It also wouldn’t be a “pay to play” system where communities would be penalized for not contributing.

“There would not be an expectation that a community would provide revenue to guarantee levels of service,” he said.

Speaking to the Chamber, Mallott said that while the ferry system could raise more revenue and become a sustainable program, he doesn’t want to see the Legislature cutting its subsidy of the ferry system just because the system is making more money.

“It’s as much a part of our highway system as a surface highway,” Mallott said, and it should “ultimately be treated the same way.”

Kito was in attendance at Thursday’s luncheon and said his intention is to have this option be in addition to the fares and fees the ferry system collects, not in place of that “farebox” revenue.

“I would anticipate that the department would be able to utilize the funds in a way that it saw would benefit the Marine Highway System,” Kito said.

Even if it’s not enough to improve service, a contribution could do something like restore onboard naturalists to the ferries or ensure special service for particular events or series of events.

HB 292 remains in the House Transportation Committee.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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