The Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board on Friday reviewed the state's proposed process to create a long-term plan for the Alaska Marine Highway System but did not provide unified direction about long-term goals for AMHS, citing ongoing frustration with the state's communication with the board as well as the board's inability to coordinate goals among its own members.
The board, created by the Legislature in 2021 to make recommendations about short and long-term planning for AMHS, met virtually on Friday afternoon, spending most of the meeting listening to a presentation about the information the state expects will need to be included in the development of a long-term plan for the agency.
Judy Chapman, the deputy director of DOT's statewide planning division, gave a 19-slide presentation to the board describing the proposed scope of work to be done on the long-range plan. Renee Whitesell of DOWL and John Waterhouse of Elliott Bay Design Group joined Chapman in giving the presentation. The state is contracting with both of those private consulting firms for planning for the marine highway.
Chapman early in the discussion noted that the three-page scope of work document included in the meeting packet incorrectly suggested that the long-range plan would include consideration of alternative modes of transportation. She also explained that DOT staff had intended to include the presentation slides in the meeting materials ahead of the work session, and apologized that the board did not have advanced access to them.
Developing the long-range plan likely would take 14 to 18 months, according to the meeting presentation.
The work session included a "goals exercise" in which the board would identify the "key themes" it wanted to see included in the goals for the long-range plan, per the presentation. Some board members shared their individual perspectives on goals for the agency, but, recognizing that the board did not have a clear set of unified goals for the marine highway, Board Chair Shirley Marquardt subsequently asked that the board move on to the rest of the presentation.
During the goals exercise, Board Member Alan Austerman explained his frustration with DOT's lack of timely communication with the board — reiterating issues the board voiced at its Feb. 3 and Feb. 22 meetings.
"Putting together a long-range plan is a big job. And I can see that there's been a lot of work done just by the presentation this morning — a lot of work that we're not aware of," said Austerman. "We've been here a year now, and they're giving a presentation to us today, instead of asking us these questions a week ago so we had time to think about it so we as a board could discuss some of these issues and make a concrete decision one way or the other and talk about these goals.
"It's very frustrating to come to these meetings, like we've been doing for the last year, with one thing in mind, and then everything else is thrown at us at the meeting," he continued. "Very frustrating. I don't understand how we can continue to work this way. This board is not doing anything because it's depending on people to bring us information, and they bring it to us at the last minute, ask us these questions — while we have had these discussions a little bit, but we have not had any kind of a concrete discussion on all these issues ourselves."
"We should have been presented this kind of information. We should be able to sit down as a board and have these conversations," Austerman concluded. "But now, we're going to move on to the next section of this (presentation) after three or four of the board members have an opportunity to stick in their nose and vote on their own information of what they want to see. I'm very frustrated."
Board Member Capt. Keith Hillard agreed, as did Marquardt.
"It may feel like we're shooting the messenger, and that's not what's trying to happen," said Marquardt. "But there's been a very huge degree of frustration throughout this process.
"What Alan has said is very true. We're in a goals exercise with something we've never seen before. We've been hoping to get more information about how this process is going to work," she added. "We clearly need to sit down, in person, together, and pull this together and have that conversation. And we just can't have it now, because — and I know that it was supposed to come to us early, and it just wasn't able to — but this is a year of that exact same thing, and we're all just feeling extremely frustrated."
Prior to the work session, the board received management updates from AMHS officials, including AMHS Acting General Manager Tony Karvelas.
In keeping with Board Member Wanetta Ayers' suggestion at a prior meeting that the management reports be kept concise and focused on the challenges and obstacles facing the agency, the reports included updates on issues including weather protocols for contracted vessels providing supplemental services and the system's ongoing crewing shortages.
In addition to crewing shortages, Karvelas during his report noted that AMHS has seen vacancies for shore-side staff positions in the Ketchikan central office, "several ... from upper- to middle-level managers." He said the office has lost nine people since the start of the calendar year, on top of the agency's vacant port engineer positions.
Karvelas also explained that the state expects to complete work to install crew quarters on the Hubbard in time to have the vessel back in service in May.
"We have a tight timeline," said Karvelas, but "everybody is putting in the effort. We've got our … crew on there now, to be augmented next week by full crew that's heading to the ship. There's a large list of punch items, but I think we're going to power through that and get the ship ready on time."
Board Member Hillard, a current AMHS employee who serves on the board as a representative of an AMHS union, was skeptical of that timing.
"I'm hearing that the Hubbard is not going to be ready by May — there's too much work left to be done and things like that. You're saying it is going to be ready," said Hillard. "Do we have odds on that? That's gonna greatly affect service in North Lynn Canal out to Hoonah (and) Gustavus."
"I don't have the odds, but the resources are being provided to the ship in order to meet the commitment," Karvelas said.
The board had not yet set a date for its next meeting in April.
Friday's meeting materials, including a revised and accurate copy of the three-page scope of work document and the 19-slide presentation, can be found on the AMHOB website at dot.alaska.gov/amhob.
A full recording of Friday's meeting can be viewed on DOT's Facebook page.