Opinion: The autocratic decision making for Cascade Point

Sufficient information hasn’t been provided for Cascade Point.

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, July 22, 2022 6:54pm
  • Opinion

Last Thursday, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities published the fourth amendment to the Alaska Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. It includes constructing a new ferry terminal at Cascade Point, which is a slap in the faces of the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board and the legislature which unanimously approved creation of it last year.

As I wrote last week, DOT signed a Letter of Intent in April 2021 with Goldbelt Inc., which owns the land at Cascade Point and would lease it to the state. The parties were supposed “to engage in good faith discussions to determine the feasibility and suitability” of the project. But as DOT Commissioner Ryan Anderson admitted to the Board earlier this month, work was paused soon after that letter was signed.

AMHOB may only have an advisory role, but to be able to advise, DOT needs to provide them with sufficient information. That hasn’t happened with Cascade Point. Board members have expressed a high level of frustration with DOT’s response to their questions about its justification, projected passenger numbers, and how it fits into the long-term system plan. But the project was added to the STIP anyway.

That’s because throughout his term in office, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has been determined to run the Alaska Marine Highway System as he sees fit.

It all began when he gutted the agency’s budget in 2019. Soon afterwards, he hired a marine consultant to “investigate options available for moving the AMHS towards privatized service or service provided by public/private partnership, with the intent of reducing the State’s financial obligation and/or liability.”

Northern Economics was selected for the study. They concluded privatizing the system wasn’t feasible without a significant state subsidy. But they offered building a terminal on private property at Cascade Point as an example of a project that could “leverage much larger levels of federal funding.” They estimated it “would reduce the operating subsidy by $750,000 to $866,000 per year.” It’s not clear from the report if that applies to a summer use only facility as DOT has proposed.

Dunleavy then issued an administrative order establishing “the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group.” Without the benefit of a more detailed analysis, eight of its nine members endorsed the Cascade Point project. The sole member who objected didn’t understand “why there seems to be so much pressure from DOT to complete this project prior to a plan or an explanation about how this project will improve the lives of the travelling public.”

AMHOB asked those questions and more during their June meeting with DOT. The project was on the agenda again for their July 1 meeting. Anderson and McHugh Pierre, President and CEO of Goldbelt, each made very brief presentations. After they finished, Board Chair Shirley Marquardt reminded them there are still many unanswered questions and that much of the information they’ve been given “is quite old.”

One point Anderson raised was about “a body of work that folks have gone through over the years,” including Reshaping Work Group recommendation. He suggested the AMHOB needed to respect those efforts.

Two weeks later he disrespected their advisory role by including Cascade Point in the STIP without ever addressing their concerns. That’s probably a reflection of his boss’s view of AMHOB.

Before the state House passed legislation creating it, Dunleavy proposed establishing a similar board, the difference being that he’d get to appoint all its members. In an email from Dunleavy’s office to KTOO, Jeff Turner argued that because the House bill directed legislative leadership to appoint four AMHOB members, it violated the constitutional separation of powers.

Legislative Affairs wasn’t so sure. “Because of the advisory nature of the Board” their attorney wrote, “it is possible a court would find no separation of powers violation exists.”

Dunleavy opted not to challenge it. Or the Legislature with a veto which likely would have been overridden. But that doesn’t mean he respects an advisory board mostly composed of private citizens who aren’t afraid to question his policies and decisions.

“Too often leaders seem to forget a simple truth: Government gets all of its authority from the people” Dunleavy said in his inaugural State of the State speech in 2019. That truth was never consistent with his autocratic management of AMHS. With Cascade Point, he’s proving it again.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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