On Wednesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the membership of his new Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group.
Its task — to provide recommendations on the future finances and service levels of the state ferry system.
“We begin today the process of restructuring the Alaska Marine Highway System for the 21st century,” declared Dunleavy, going boldly where so many have gone before.
If ever a transportation system has been studied to near death, it’s the AMHS.
Math professors could someday write test questions asking how many times AMHS studies, if laid end to end, could encircle the globe. Meanwhile, study information and recommendations seem to disappear, like the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” into the forgotten wastelands of some vast government warehouse.
Jesting aside, recent history highlights the governor’s design for another committee.
Dunleavy’s first budget proposal in February 2019 would have ended ferry service by Sept. 30 and set funding to sell off the ferries and terminals.
The budget proposal drew a sharp backlash, and the Legislature was able to negotiate a much-reduced AMHS budget that Dunleavy wouldn’t veto and still keep some service available over the fall, winter and spring seasons.
Dunleavy in March quickly commissioned a study on ways to privatize the ferry system or otherwise reduce state financial participation in providing ferry transportation. Branded the AMHS Economic Reshaping Study, the $250,000 effort was supposed to produce a draft by August and be finished by mid-October. It wasn’t made public until three months later, in January. The original intent also was to have an alternative ferry system structure in place by next July. That’s not happening. Instead, Dunleavy announced he would form a work group.
Information given at a press conference Wednesday indicated that the work group would meet in late summer, according to reporter Matt Buxton of The Midnight Sun. The governor’s announcement said the group’s report is due by Sept. 30, with implementation beginning in fiscal year 2023.
Fiscal year 2023 runs July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2023. That’s more than two years away.
Meanwhile, AMHS is struggling terribly now.
As of Wednesday, the only ferry in operation is the Lituya, which runs between Annette Bay and Ketchikan. The mainline ferry Matanuska is out of service with a mechanical issue that AMHS officials say is a warranty issue, and AMHS currently doesn’t have an operational ferry to fill in. The Matanuska is scheduled to resume service in early March, but Alaska DOT Commissioner John MacKinnon told a press conference on Wednesday that “there’s no guarantee” regarding when the ferry would return to service, according to Matt Buxton of The Midnight Sun. These are not conditions that provide even the potential of ferry ridership. There’s just no service available. Period.
Dunleavy has proposed essentially a status-quo AMHS budget for the next fiscal year. Proposed summer service is a shadow of what it once was. The Legislature is moving toward adding some funding back, but it’s clear that unless something larger is done soon, the Alaska Marine Highway System is in danger of going under.
Given the time frame for Dunleavy’s work group, it’s becoming evident that this governor simply wants to run out the clock on the marine highway, doing little while waiting for a work group to come up with yet another set of recommendations that might or might not be implemented years from now. This isn’t leadership in any direction. It’s a malign neglect.
By contrast, it’s encouraging to see some movement from the Legislature. On Thursday, the House Transportation Committee will have a hearing on House Bill 249. This legislation would create an Alaska Marine Highway System Corporation of the sort recommended by the Southeast Conference AMHS Reform process.
This legislation represents an actual step forward. And actual steps forward are needed — right now.