U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg joined U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on an Alaska state ferry on Wednesday, Aug. 16 during his first visit to Southeast Alaska. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Transportation)

My Turn: Traveling the Alaska way

The night before my team and I were scheduled to fly from Juneau to Haines on Seaplanes with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, I did something I’ve never done before when traveling in Southeast.

I wished for rain and wind.

I secretly hoped our flights would be grounded so the secretary would get a real taste of transportation in our state, where we often have to pivot to Plans B and C to get where we’re going.

As luck and weather would have it, my prayers were quickly answered when we got the updated forecast at 4:30 a.m. that next morning. And instead of flying, we quickly mobilized our teams and scrambled to make the 7 a.m. ferry.

Our carefully orchestrated travel plans now a wreck, the secretary and his team waited in line at the terminal in Auke Bay to buy their tickets. We walked onto the loading ramp in the rain, grabbed breakfast in the cafeteria of the M/V Hubbard, pulled up a circle of chairs, and held a meeting in the hallway over coffee as other passengers walked past us.

Throughout our negotiations on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), one of my highest priorities was gaining support for our ferries. I told my colleagues that if they were asking me to support funding for Amtrak, or for subway upgrades in New York, they would have to support Alaska’s Marine Highway, because when it comes to Alaska, our highways are our waterways.

It’s also why I’ve been so insistent that Secretary Buttigieg, and other federal officials, come to Alaska and see how and why our infrastructure is so unique and why federal investment is so necessary to keep Alaska moving and growing. When the all-too-routine inclement weather hit Juneau and cancelled our air travel, he got a firsthand glimpse at how essential transportation redundancy is to our coastal communities in the form of a reliable ferry system.

It’s true the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) faces workforce shortages, seesaw funding, and challenges associated with the overall vision from its leadership. But never before have the stars aligned so well to not only fix, but transform Alaska’s Marine Highway System.

In January, the AMHS received a sizeable $285 million federal investment from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Thanks to the programs enacted under the IIJA, the AMHS is poised to receive additional federal investment each of the next three years. We also have people at the highest level of the President’s administration who have seen the system with their own eyes, better understand the challenges we face, and who are ready to work with us to tackle those challenges head on.

With this unique window of opportunity in front of us, now is the time to make sure we are wisely utilizing the five years of supplemental federal funding to build and scope a sustainable system and fleet for the next 50-100 years. We should not be afraid to reimagine the system that operates for the good of all Alaskans who rely on it. I understand that progress is being made, especially with regard to replacing the Tustamena; however, we must leverage every federal dollar available by providing matching state funds to rebuild our aging fleet and address the structural challenges facing the system, instead of supplementing our state costs.

A revitalized marine highway system will help coastal Alaska flourish. A consistent, year-round schedule would link up our communities and villages, connect our economies, open up health care travel, put groceries and essential goods on store shelves in a timely manner, and facilitate greater outreach for public safety officers.

This is our lifeline to rebuild a vital piece of infrastructure that can serve Alaskans for the next 75 years as reliably as it has the last 75. The tools are laid out, just waiting for us to pick them up and put in the work.

Are we ready?

• Lisa Murkowski is a Republican U.S. senator representing Alaska.

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