Alaska’s Legislature is close to final approval of a resolution urging the federal government to take actions that would allow for large ship cruising in Alaska during the 2021 season.
Meanwhile, discussion of legislation to create a de facto board of directors for the Alaska Marine Highway System is underway.
On Wednesday, Alaska’s House of Representatives voted 38-2 in support of Senate Joint Resolution 9, sending it back to the Alaska Senate for a final OK.
Sponsored initially by Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, SJR9 requests that the U.S. Congress exempt large cruise ships from parts of the federal Passenger Vessel Services Act and other relevant portions of federal law while Canada’s ports are closed to passenger ships carrying more than 100 people.
We’ve already written in support of this concept, recognizing that the PVSA is a major roadblock to a potential return to cruising. Alaska’s Legislature should urge Congress to act, just as the cruise industry and cruise ports are urging the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise its guidance for restarting cruising.
Ultimately, the course of the novel coronavirus pandemic will be a primary factor determining whether large-ship cruising occurs in U.S. ports during 2021. The industry should have a clear path to resume some cruising quickly if conditions allow.
The stakes for Alaska communities that have relied on cruise visitorship really couldn’t be any larger.
“Coastal Alaska's economy relies on tourism from cruise ships, which brought 90 percent of our visitors in the year before the pandemic,” Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, said in a prepared statement following Wednesday’s House vote. “Another lost season could be a fatal blow to many businesses hanging on by a thread, and I implore our federal partners to find common-sense alternatives that help businesses get back on their feet.”
The other legislation of interest to Ketchikan — and all Alaska — is House Bill 63 introduced by House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak to create a nine-member Alaska Marine Highway System Operations Board.
HB 63 — which already has gone through the House Transportation Committee and was heard in the House State Affairs Committee earlier this week — would be “comparable to a board of directors providing business leadership and long-term strategic planning for a corporation,” according to Stutes’ sponsor statement.
That’s in contrast to the current Alaska Marine Transportation Advisory Board, which, as Stutes states, “is not structured to effectively direct AMHS with its large marine business operations, planning or solutions for issues it currently faces.” The proposed board would provide “professional advice focused on business and financial practices of the ferry system, including fleet planning, maintenence, pricing, service models and capital asset investment.”
The proposed nine-member board would include whoever currently is responsible for Alaska’s marine transportation division, in addition to four members appointed by the governor, two appointed by the House speaker, and two appointed by the Senate president.
This differs from similar legislation proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy (HB134), which would establish an 11-member board consisting of the Alaska Department of Transportation commissioner and 10 others appointed by the governor.
In our view, Stutes’ proposal is preferable because it distributes the power of appointment among three elected officials rather than just the governor. The longstanding woes of AMHS can be attributed largely to political interference, and diffusing rather than concentrating political influence would be preferred going forward.
Still, it’s not clear that a reconfigured entity with a greater role in developing short- and long-range planning is the solution for AMHS. A new group still would be providing only “advice and recommendations” while everything else remains mostly unchanged. That seems like a recipe for continuing a rudderless ferry system at the mercy of the changing tides of each new administration.
But, if a new board can provide at least some improvement, we’ll support its creation and hope for the best.