The Finance Subcommittee of the House Committee of Transportation and Public Facilities meets at the state Capitol on Tuesday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

The Finance Subcommittee of the House Committee of Transportation and Public Facilities meets at the state Capitol on Tuesday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

‘Difficult year for the AMHS’ with more struggles ahead

Gov’s proposed budget doesn’t add much for ferries

It’s been a difficult year for the Alaska Marine Highway System, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities told legislators Tuesday afternoon.

“We were not expecting to be reduced by $43 million,” Mary Siroky told the finance subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Public Facilities. “It’s been a very erratic and a very difficult year for the marine highway.”

Siroky along with other DOT staff members walked committee members through the current status of AMHS over the 2020 fiscal year and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposals for FY21.

The governor’s proposed budget for 2021 would add about $4.7 million the AMHS’ operating budget, according to presentation materials provided by DOT. AMHS’ budget in 2020 was just over $96 million while the governor’s 2021 budget calls for roughly $100 million.

That amount will still leave the ferry system with significant gaps in service, according to DOT. Prince William Sound will have a 3½ month gap in service, Homer and Kodiak Island will have three months with no service and villages in the northern panhandle with have a 2½ gap in service with no service to Pelican or Tenakee Springs.

The rest of Southeast will continue with its 50% reduction in service as compared to FY19, according to DOT.

Committee members wanted to know what it would take to get the boats running again, and the short answer is funding, according to Siroky.

Department of Transportation and Public Services Administrative Director Dom Pannone, left, and Deputy Commissioner Mary Siroky answer questions during a presentation on the Alaska Marine Highway System on Tuesday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Department of Transportation and Public Services Administrative Director Dom Pannone, left, and Deputy Commissioner Mary Siroky answer questions during a presentation on the Alaska Marine Highway System on Tuesday. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

“The Marine Highway System has to have general funds to operate,” Siroky said, and the Legislature is responsible for appropriating those funds. “It comes down to the dollars that are appropriated, it’s going to always come back to dollars.”

But even if the Legislature were to appropriate funds, it would still take time to get ships running and resume service.

There are currently six ships from the AMHS fleet currently in the shipyard in Ketchikan, according to Captain John Falvey, general manager of the AMHS.

“The ships that are in the shipyard now are essentially in their (regular) schedule,” Falvey said. However, many of their timelines have been extended due to extra maintenance needs, he said.

“The LeConte has a lot of work that needs to be done,” Falvey said. “About $4.5 million worth of work. The rule of thumb is you can complete about a million worth of work a month.”

Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, asked what DOT’s priorities would be if the Legislature were to add $10 or $15 million dollars.

“Whatever funding we get, the priority will be to pay the current bills we have,” Siroky said.

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, admitted the ferry system was in a difficult situation but was critical of DOT for not managing the reductions better.

“It wasn’t just one year that created the condition of these boats,” Stutes said, referring to the boats in need of significant maintenance. “It was years and years, this doesn’t happen overnight.”

Story said she believed Alaskans were in agreement that Dunleavy’s cuts to the state were too deep, and asked DOT to provide the committee with an amount of money needed to provide a degree of certainty to communities who depend on the ferries.

On Thursday, the Legislature once again tried, and failed to override some of Dunleavy’s vetoes from the last legislative session. A successful override would’ve added an additional $5 million to the AMHS budget.

“The Marine Highway has worked their hearts out to provide as much service as possible under this situation,” Siroky said. “That’s what happens when your budget gets reduced by $43 million.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.

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