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2/16/2019
Sinking AMHS

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy on Wednesday proposed a budget to sink the Alaska Marine Highway System — something that candidate Dunleavy explicity told Ketchikan was not being considered.

Released Wednesday, Dunleavy’s proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year wants to cut state funding for AMHS by 68.4 percent, which includes a $66.7 million reduction for ferry operations (66.8 percent) and $16.5 million (80.5 percent) less for fuel.

In addition, Dunleavy’s proposed capitol budget shifts $25 million out of the design and replacement process for the AMHS ocean-going ferry Tustumena, using the money instead for the state’s federal-aid highway funding match.

Also — and here’s the clincher — Dunleavy’s proposed capital budget shifts $15 million out of the AMHS vessel replacement fund and gives it to the Alaska Department of Transportation “for divesting the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries and terminals.”

Let that sink in. Divesting AMHS ferries and terminals.

The Dunleavy plan is clear: Scuttle the Alaska Marine Highway System, and fast.

And replace it with, well, what?

On Wednesday, Dunleavy’s budget director Donna Arduin told reporters that the administration is hiring a consultant, and already has proposals to look at privatizing the system.

The implications are staggering for Ketchikan, which is home to AMHS headquarters, a Ketchikan Shipyard that’s hugely dependent on AMHS work, numerous AMHS employees, and a population that relies on AMHS service.

Ketchikan voted for Dunleavy by a wide margin. Candidate Dunleavy polled 3,237 votes in Ketchikan, compared to 2,181 for Mark Begich.

Did Ketchikan voters have a clue about what candidate Dunleavy had in mind for the Alaska Marine Highway System? Not from candidate Dunleavy’s own words.

During an April 3 visit to Ketchikan, candidate Dunleavy said that, if elected, he would be sitting down with administrators and those who run the AMHS to discuss ways to make the service more efficient.

“That’s not code word for lopping off and chopping off big aspects of it,” Dunleavy said. “But no, give us some feedback, ‘What are some ways we could make (AMHS) more efficient, what are some ways we can run the ferry better, and work with folks that are on the ground?”

“But it’s crucial,” he said. “You can’t eliminate the ferry system in Southeast Alaska, that’s how we get around.”

Candidate Dunleavy was back in Ketchikan on Sept. 12 for the gubernatorial debate organized by Southeast Conference, the entity that’s been working on a plan to reorganize AMHS as a public corporation similar to the state Alaska Railroad Corp.

During the debate, Dunleavy noted his support for Southeast Conference's efforts to improve the AMHS, and also emphasized the importance of the AMHS to the region and its economy.

 “The marine highway system is the highway system for Southeast (Alaska),” Dunleavy said. “I support what (Southeast Conference) is doing and I look forward to working with that group and finding efficiencies and ways to make the marine highway system, a sustainable system for generations to come.

“And I think by putting our collective heads together, we can come up with some ideas that will get us there,” he added.  

Later that week, in an interview with the Daily News, candidate Dunleavy said sustainability is key in any solution when it comes to improving AMHS service. However, Dunleavy didn’t offer specific details on how he would improve the system, noting that he was still listening and learning more about the issues that it faces.

“Well, I’m talking to folks, I’m looking forward to having those discussions because, as I mentioned, the AMHS is critical for Southeast Alaska,” Dunleavy said. “Between the airport and the ferry system this is the transportation for Southeast Alaska.”

He reiterated that he was looking into Southeast Conference’s potential AMHS reform plan.

“I’m just learning about this now in discussions with folks, but that’s certainly something we will take a look at,” said candidate Dunleavy.

The candidate returned to Ketchikan on Oct. 26, when he attended a campaign rally with lieutenant governor candidate Kevin Meyer at The Plaza mall.

After the rally — which was 11 days before the election — Dunleavy again talked with the Daily News.

Dunleavy was asked whether he had developed any specific ideas on how to improve the Alaska Marine Highway System. He again didn’t offer specific ideas, but said he was interested in continuing to hear from, and meet with, stakeholders.

“I stand behind the fact that it is the backbone of transportation in Southeast Alaska, that we're gonna do everything we can to work with local stakeholders to make sure that it remains the backbone of transportation in Southeast,” Dunleavy said.

“I want to hear from the stakeholders because I don't ride the marine highway,” he said. “It's not a backbone from the area I come from — I mean land transportation is — so I want to be able to sit down with folks and get their feedback.”

When asked whether he supported Southeast Conference’s idea of turning the AMHS into a public corporation somewhat akin to the Alaska Railroad, Dunleavy said he would like to meet and hear from those involved.

Dunleavy also noted that the AMHS needed to be made more efficient — but emphasized that in no way does he plan to reduce service or harm it.

“There is no plan to hack, cut or destroy the marine highway system,” said candidate Dunleavy.

Gov. Dunleavy has that plan now.

Just when that plan was developed and by whom is a mystery. We’re unaware of any public stakeholder meetings or outreach by the Dunleavy administration. We’re also curious regarding the privatization proposals referred to by Arduin. But, given Dunleavy’s pledges of transparency and restoring trust in government, we can be sure that the Dunleavy administration will announce details about the privatization proposals very, very soon.

Readers can compare and decide for themselves whether there is a difference between candidate Dunleavy’s words and Gov. Dunleavy’s actions relative to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

But here we are. Candidate Dunleavy was elected governor, and, regardless of whether or not Ketchikan had an inkling of what was coming, Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed budget for the Alaska Marine Highway System has massive implications for AMHS, the First City — and every other community served by AMHS ferries.

One wonders what Gov. Dunleavy might say about the Alaska Marine Highway System the next time he’s in Ketchikan. Or, what might Ketchikan say to Dunleavy?