Even with long road ahead, lawmakers add $18 million to ferry budget

Subcommittee added the funds to try and get bare bones service

Lawmakers added $18.7 million to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to boost the state’s ailing ferry system, but the addition still has a long way to go before the money reaches the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The budget subcommittee on the House Transportation and Public Facilities Committee voted Thursday to make the addition, which would still need to be approved by the Legislature and by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to take effect.

“This is a good start,” said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak. “What we’re hoping is it will be the basic service, the bare minimum for coastal communities.”

Legislators had heard the people of Alaska demand transportation services, Stutes said, and while she admitted the appropriation has a long road ahead of it, the subcommittee made a start.

On Tuesday, rallies in support of the ferry system were held in towns around Southeast Alaska. In Juneau, over 100 people gathered in front of the Alaska State Capitol chanting, “start them up,” in reference to the many ferry vessels currently tied up in Ketchikan.

AMHS currently only has one ferry, the MV Latuya, running between Ketchikan and Metlakatla. The MV Matanuska, which was running between Bellingham and Haines, ran into maintenance issues and has been taken out of service until March 1, according to a press release from the Department of Transportation and Public Services.

Last year, Dunleavy vetoed extra funds appropriated for the ferries saying that additional funding was “premature” until the release of a reshaping study done by Anchorage analysis firm Northern Economics. That report was released last month after several months of delay, and many lawmakers and ferry supporters were critical of its analysis.

This year; however, the governor’s office has said fixing the ferry system will be a priority for the administration.

Two days after the release of the study, Dunleavy announced the creation of an AMHS reshaping group to submit recommendations to the governor’s office on how to make the ferry system more efficient.

Stutes has been appointed to serve on that work group, but said she doesn’t know when it’s first meeting will be.

“He said he hopes for a plan by September,” Stutes said of the governor’s timeline for the working group. “To do nothing until this new committee comes up with their recommendations is unacceptable.”

The funding increase was warmly welcomed by Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau.

“Reduced ferry service has been painful for our people, our communities, and our businesses,” Story said in a release. “Funds voted on today will be significant in reinstating stable service to people across Alaska. We will continue working until the ferries are up and running again.”

The budget proposal will move next to the House Finance Committee, a press release from the House Majority Caucus said.

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

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