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Over the years, the Alaska Marine Highway System has been an attractive target for political influence.
Each successive state adminstration and Legislature bring their own ideas of how best to run the system. The result has been a course somewhat like that of a sailboat tacking with the prevailing wind.
That’s led to the observation that swirling political winds have made setting a long-term course for the ferry system rather difficult.
But we’ve taken heart over time that, despite the rumblings of discontent in some areas of Alaska, our governors and most legislators have supported maintaining state ferry service to coastal Alaska communities.
Even with the decline of state funding for AMHS in recent years, there remained an acknowledgement that ferry service is a core state service for coastal Alaska, bringing benefits throughout the state. The recognition that the ferry system has increasing challenges — especially with an aging mainline fleet — had until recently brought good-faith efforts to find ways to improve the system.
In 2016, for example, then-Gov. Bill Walker joined with Southeast Conference to launch a statewide planning process focused on improving the long-term viability of the state ferry system. Since then, Southeast Conference’s public process had made significant progress toward formulating what could be a viable path forward.
Yet that process appears dead in the water following the Feb. 13 release of a new governor’s proposed budgets, and Wednesday’s release of a state request for proposals for a consultant to come up with some sort of a plan that can go into effect on July 1, 2020.
The main goal of that plan appears to be “to reduce the financial obligation of the AMHS in an effort to minimize the costs.”
The concept of providing service appears to run a distant second in the RFP’s priorities.
Meanwhile, the governor’s proposed budget and timetables focus on essentially shutting AMHS down on Oct. 1. There would be money to dispose of the ferries and terminals.
The Legislature appears unlikely to go along with the proposals, but any adjustments by the Legislature still have to make it past the governor’s veto pen. While we once believed that an Alaska governor would support mantaining transportation service to coastal communities, we no longer have that confidence.
The strategy adopted by this administration seems calculated to hasten the demise of the Alaska Marine Highway System, regardless of what sort of plan a consultant might come up with.
The AMHS is no longer accepting reservations for travel after the end of September. The travel media is beginning to pick up on that fact. The uncertainties about the future of AMHS are already resulting in changed plans by travelers — and of the plans of businesses in Alaska coastal communities. Will there be an AMHS in the fall of 2019? Or in 2020? Or at any time in the future? If so, what communities might it serve? Anybody who has the answer to those questions has a far better crystal ball than we do.
On the campaign trail in Ketchikan, the current governor spoke about the importance of the Alaska Marine Highway System, and that, while there was a need for improvements, there was no plan to slash AMHS.
The proposed budgets and RFP bear no resemblance to that campaign talk, and make this administration’s true position regarding state ferry service quite clear.
The good faith is gone.