My Turn: AMHS cuts off limb hoping it grows back

  • By REP. SAM KITO III
  • Sunday, October 11, 2015 1:02am
  • Opinion

On Tuesday, the State of Alaska Department of Transportation released its proposed Alaska Marine Highway System summer schedule for 2016. This schedule raises many concerns about how the department is planning for the future of the system. If we look at AMHS as a person, cutting service in the way proposed would be like cutting off an arm or leg, and hoping that someday it will grow back. It may be time for AMHS to lose weight, but we should not start severing extremities.

AMHS, the users of this vital transportation system and all residents of Alaska will not be served by knee-jerk reactions to budget cuts or the anticipation of future budget cuts. Laying vessels up as a reaction to possible budget cuts means it will be harder and more expensive to bring those vessels back online.

If AMHS is going to weather this storm of low oil prices, declining oil production and budget pressure it will need to do so with a carefully thought out strategy that will provide essential transportation services to coastal communities.

Saying that AMHS is not necessary because of the cost, and because it only serves part of the Alaska population, is like saying that the Richardson Highway, Denali Highway or Sterling Highway are not necessary because they are only connected directly to a small part of Alaska’s population.

The annual operational cost subsidy of the marine highway is a concern and a challenge. Let’s accept that challenge and build a system that provides necessary services more efficiently. The best way to do this is to develop a long-range plan for the system.

A long-range plan will first collect information about the system, the ports served, the vessels serving those ports, frequency of service, ridership, commercial and personal vehicle carriage, costs of operations, and costs of service. That information can be used to look at options based on different levels of funding.

The information can also help AMHS identify efficiencies in the system by looking at costs of operations, including improving fuel efficiency, increasing ridership, increasing vehicle carriage and providing rates that allow for sustainable commercial carriage. The plan can help us determine how much and how rapidly we can decrease the AMHS subsidy from 70 percent to 60 percent, 50 percent, or even lower.

In developing the plan we must realize that increasing fares can raise revenues up to a certain point. If fares are too high, travelers will not be able to afford to ride on the marine highway.

For vehicle transportation, cost increases should be considered carefully because a significant share of the revenue received by the system comes from vehicle fares, and there are not reasonable alternatives for transporting vehicles between communities in coastal Alaska. Raise vehicle fares too much and fewer vehicles will travel. That will result in lower revenues.

Before instituting across the board rate increases for commercial carriage, we must consider whether or not there are reliable and dependable options for commercial carriage between individual communities.

It will take time to prepare a detailed AMHS system plan, but DOT&PF should be able to identify a strategy for two or three years of reductions that won’t jeopardize the overall health of the system. Is it possible to achieve a $1 million or $2 million annual reduction in the subsidy to the system? Can those reductions be planned in such a way as to preserve basic and essential marine highway service? I believe they can.

The department must take another look at the schedule for next summer, and strive to provide basic and essential services while maintaining a healthy fleet of vessels to provide transportation services in southeast, southcentral and Aleutian archipelagos. These are not easy areas for traditional road transportation and, as we have seen with recent air tragedies, they are not easy areas for air travel, either.

These are the challenges that must be addressed and some of the questions we should expect to see answered in a proactive manner by DOT leadership as the department works to develop a comprehensive AMHS system plan.

• Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, represents House District 33.

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