Lawmakers: Ferries will struggle even with small cash infusion

Supplemental budget would give $12 million, but that’s just stratching the surface of financial needs of AMHS

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s supplemental budget introduced Wednesday will give the Alaska Marine Highway System a much needed infusion of cash if passed, but there are still plenty of struggles ahead for the state’s ferries.

At a Senate Finance Committee meeting Thursday morning, Sen. Bert Stedman, who chairs the committee, said that nobody likes the current situation AMHS is in.

“There are no winners,” he said.

The supplemental budget calls for a total of $12.05 million in AMHS funding, split in two ways. Seven million will go to sustaining the already scheduled service for spring and summer, with some added service, according to the Office of Management and Budget’s breakdown of the funding requests. Another $5 million will go toward vessel maintenance.

Speaking the committee meeting Thursday, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner John MacKinnon said the department was working with the U.S. Coast Guard to see which vessels could be put back into service.

Maintenance needs have piled up, leaving the department with several boats in need or repairs all at the same time, MacKinnon said.

“Discovery of a vast amount of rotted steel on the LeConte, unanticipated repairs to the Columbia rudder and hubs and additional repair needs discovered on the Kennicott and Tustumena necessitate additional authority to keep these vessels operational,” OMB’s breakdown said.

Stedman was critical of DOT for not bringing maintenance requests to the Legislature sooner. The deterioration of metal doesn’t happen over one summer, he told MacKinnon. Stedman also said new vessels were at least eight to 10 years from coming into service and that there needs to be conversations between the Legislature, DOT and the governor’s administration about that issue.

MacKinnon said it was possible there would be little or no service during the month of March. Stedman, speaking to the public via the 360 North coverage, asked that people plan ahead and try and remain flexible under the current situation.

[Gov’s chief of staff says getting ferries back in service is a top priority]

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, asked if there was additional funding coming to the ferry system given that administration officials had recently said AMHS was a priority. That was an ongoing conversation with the administration, MacKinnon said.

Dunleavy recently announced the creation of an AMHS reshaping group of which Stedman is a member. That group will look for ways to improve the system as a whole. Also on Thursday, the House Transportation finance subcommittee got a breakdown of each ship’s repair needs.

The ship with the lowest cost of needed repairs was the Lituya with $1.6 million. The highest cost was the Malaspina with $68 million, but that ship was taken out of service in December because of its repair needs.

AMHS currently only has one ship running while the Matanuska remains tied up in Auke Bay undergoing repairs. The department was able to make arrangements to transport a large number of students who were traveling for school late last month, MacKinnon said, and is looking into special service for upcoming events.

Transporting those students cost the department about $11,000, MacKinnon told the committee. DOT officials previously told the Empire it wasn’t clear how much it would cost to house the passengers currently onboard the Matanuska. Those passengers had their tickets refunded and have been given rooms and food at the state’s expense while they wait.

MacKinnon said that there were several military personnel traveling on the Matanuska and that arrangements had been made to transport those people on to their final destinations.

On Jan. 30, DOT officials told the Empire the Matanuska was awaiting repair parts but that it was scheduled to sail on Feb. 8. The department did not respond to a message asking if that was still the case. The Matanuska doesn’t appear on AMHS’ current sailing schedule.

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

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