Matt McLaren, Business and Development Manager for the Alaska Marine Highway System, and Amanda Holland, Management Director for the Office of Management and Budget, make a presentation to the Senate Transportation Committee at the Capitol on Thursday, March 7, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Matt McLaren, Business and Development Manager for the Alaska Marine Highway System, and Amanda Holland, Management Director for the Office of Management and Budget, make a presentation to the Senate Transportation Committee at the Capitol on Thursday, March 7, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Study for ferry system’s future moving on ‘aggressive’ timeline

Initial report could be to Legislature by mid-May

The Alaska Marine Highway System might have a new set of recommendations by the middle of the summer, according to a directive from the governor.

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is currently taking applications for consultants to come in and study the ferry system, and is on what government officials have called an “aggressive” timeline.

According to presentations from DOT&PF and the Office of Management and Budget on Thursday, the deadline for consultant applicants is March 11, and the study is scheduled to begin March 18. This timeline comes as a directive from the governor, according to the presentations.

The study would be due July 31, according to the presentations, which were given to members of the Senate Transportation and Public Facilities Committee. OMB Management Director Amanda Holland said DOT&PF has already spoken with three consultants and has had inquiries from others.

“They’ve felt that the aggressive timeline could still result in receipt of a qualified consultant bid, and they would like to get moving on this project as quickly as possible so that they have time to analyze as many options,” Holland said.

Bringing in a consultant is part of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed plan for the ferry system. Dunleavy’s proposed budget would cut the ferry system’s funding by 75 percent in the next fiscal year, and would use between $60,000 and $90,000 of this year’s AMHS budget to pay for the consultant’s report, according to Thursday’s presentations.

There have been numerous studies over the years on making the ferry system more efficient and financially viable, including a current AMHS Reform Project that has examined solutions in the past two and a half years including running the highway system as a public corporation. That reform study has been done through Southeast Conference, and Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables was at Thursday’s presentations.

[Backers of ferry reform seek backing from Alaska Legislature]

Venables agreed that the timeline is extremely aggressive, but whichever consultant comes in will have quite a bit of information to work with.

“If they had to start from ground zero, there’d not be enough time,” Venables said in an interview, “but because there’s so much groundwork already done, I think they can probably come up with some quick conclusions.”

During the presentation, Holland said this study is meant to take all of those previous studies into account and look at it all with a fresh set of eyes.

“All of those studies are specific to one particular look, one particular scope,” Holland said, “and the idea of bringing this qualified consultant on board is that they would review all of that, bring in their own unique expertise about how to maximize the marine highway system and be able to provide the department with various options including the information from these reports.”

The DOT&PF’s request for proposal (RFP) reads that the length of the contract could be amended if the state and the contractor agree on an extension. An extension would be on a month-to-month basis, according to the RFP.

DOT&PF Deputy Commissioner Mary Siroky said at the close of Thursday afternoon’s meeting that ideally the consultant will have some conclusions to legislators by May, in an effort to give them information to make decisions during the current legislative session.

The timeline detailed in the RFP states that the goal for the consultant to have preliminary recommendations is May 15, and the approximate deadline for a preliminary draft report is June 7. The DOT&PF is expected to provide comments on this draft report by June 14, according to the RFP.

[Lt. Gov. tells Alaska Natives, ‘Don’t be too upset by the budget’]

The consultant will aim to have a final draft to the department by July 5, with DOT&PF officials providing comments to the consultant by July 12. The final report is expected to be done by the end of July.

The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 12 and will take public testimony about the AMHS, according to the Legislature’s online calendar. The committee will recess until 5:30 p.m. and resume public comment, according to the calendar.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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