Last week, the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Group released a report it had been working on for several months throughout the pandemic. Even though this group has finished its task, I will continue to work to find ways to increase ferry service and reliability throughout Southeast Alaska and the rest of our state, at a level that is sustainable, functional, safe, and efficient.
The Reshaping Group made several recommendations, many of which focused on the need for the ferry system and the ferry budget to focus on long-term service goals, rather than year-by-year needs. The AMHS has a history of being managed in a way that overlooks long-term needs of the system, and the people they are suppose to serve.
This limited management style fails to account for longer-term needs of the ferry system that can become costly when ignored. One of the main suggestions of the report is to develop a multi-year plan for vessel maintenance and replacement. This way, service can remain consistent and we will have a better idea of what vessels will be available for use each year. With this in place, we can avoid lapses in service like those we experienced this past winter. This plan would have to have a multiyear agreement of setting aside federal money to construct and replace aging vessels. However, one Legislature cannot obligate future Legislatures to appropriation agreements. This would be a Constitutional violation. In order for a long-term plan to work, mechanisms need to be put into place to ensure these agreements will be honored beyond the 32nd Legislature. They need to be durable and acceptable in the statewide transportation plan.
Two related issues the report touches on are the M/V Tustemena replacement and the Prince Rupert terminal. The Tustemena, constructed in 1964, is a certified ocean class ferry that serves the cross-gulf route and the communities in Southwest Alaska all the way to Dutch Harbor. The M/V Tustemena replacement became a focus for the state after a major service interruption in 2013. However, the long-term plan for this and the future fleet is still not clear. Critical decisions about any new vessel should be made with a long-term system fleet strategy in mind, including abilities of the vessels to meet extra safety requirements to visit an international port in Canada at Prince Rupert and the inclusion of a cross-gulf ferry.
As it stands now, the governance structure of the ferry system is too influenced by the political winds of the day. Governors can change every four years. And the DOT commissioners change more often than the governor. With each new administration comes a new ferry management plan. Any organization, including the Marine Highway, cannot implement a continually changing plan.
In order for the ferry system to prosper long-term, we need to create a new governance structure that allows for a centralized figure of authority over the system, one that understands and advocates for the system throughout the changing political tides.
As we go forward into next session, my office will be working with Gov. Dunleavy’s office to help formulate a plan and a budget that will be sustainable in the long term and will provide coastal Alaskans with a transportation system that they need and deserve.
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, represents Alaska Senate District R, and was a member of the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Group.