As the House Transportation Committee got underway with its second day of public testimony on the Alaska Marine Highway System on Thursday afternoon, minority Republicans said they were over it and wanted to move onto other issues.
Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s budget doesn’t contain funding to keep the ferry operating past Oct. 1, leaving dozens of coastal communities—including Juneau—without regular or affordable access to groceries, transportation or the rest of Alaska.
The transportation committee has been inundated with public testimony in support of the ferry system with Tuesday’s hearing hitting record-high participation because, you know, eliminating communities’ access to the rest of Alaska is probably a little alarming.
But for the minority Republicans, they’ve heard enough.
“While the House Transportation Committee sits through yet another session of testimony this afternoon on the Alaska Marine Highway System, the rest of our state’s transportation and infrastructure issues continue to be neglected,” said Rep. Sara Rasmussen, a Republican from Anchorage—a community that is expected to keep its roads operating after Oct. 1. “While I understand the importance of the Marine Highway System and generally support efforts to continue ferry service in a cost-effective manner, there are other important issues that warrant our immediate consideration.”
She said issues like Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport, Anchorage’s Port of Alaska and the area’s roads, highways and railways are being left to languish because the committee held a second public hearing on the ferry system. She made the comments in a prepared statement that was issued 20 minutes into the Thursday hearing.
“These issues are critically important to our ability to grow Alaska’s economy and they’re being completely ignored,” she said. “Rather than spending hours fixated on one government system, we should be focusing on the whole—investing our time and resources in modern infrastructure through projects like the Juneau Access Road—that could fundamentally revolutionize both the economies of Southeast Alaska and the rest of the state.”
Eagle River Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick also lent her criticism to the issue, noting that “being born and raised in Juneau, I understand the role that the Marine Highway System plays in Southeast Alaska.”
“I also believe that this is an opportunity to look for long-term, fiscally responsible solutions that will bolster tourism and industry in the region without forcing Alaskans to give up more of their Permanent Fund Dividends,” she said. “We need to think about investing in capital projects like the Juneau Access Road and maintenance to improve our state’s existing infrastructure and accessibility. Advancing these projects in Alaska creates jobs that our state desperately needs.”
What does ‘modern infrastructure’ look like?
It should be noted that the controversial Juneau Access Project won’t, as currently proposed, actually connect Juneau to the road system. Instead, the most road-intensive proposal would extend the road about 47.9 miles north through some difficult terrain and connect it to, surprise, a ferry terminal for a shorter ferry ride to connect Juneau to Haines and Skagway (though it would just so happen to provide easier road access to a mine along the route).
Former Gov. Bill Walker put the brakes on the program, arguing that “a road extended to a yet-to-be-built ferry terminal through more than 40 avalanche zones, with a history of litigation” wasn’t practical given the state’s financial woes.
Dunleavy, however, hasn’t seen such snags with the program and revoked Walker’s administrative order, allowing the project to move forward if, as Dunleavy’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow explained, “the merits of the program or the project speak for itself — if the economics say it can be done at some point if there is interest.”
The Juneau Access Project would only shorten Juneau’s ferry ride, not replace the system altogether. It also wouldn’t address the needs of the 30-some other coastal communities that rely on ferries.
The economics of the ferry
Though the ferry’s ridership fees don’t cover its operating costs, a 2016 study argued that the state investment in the program didn’t go to waste. The report has since been stricken from both the governor’s website and the Department of Transportation’s website, but it argued that for every $1 invested by the state the economy saw a little more than $2 in return.
Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin panned the marine highway system at the release of the budget, arguing that its rate to transport a vehicle was not competitive when compared to land-based highways.
“The cost of transporting a vehicle on state highway is about two cents per mile, where it’s about $4.58 per mile on a ferry,” she said.
And while the administration has not appeared particularly interested in the financial impacts of programs beyond the income they bring in, they have applied such an argument for the increased dividends.
For those who are interested in the economic impacts of the Alaska Marine Highway System, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has a copy of the report.
The report found that nonresident ferry passengers spent on average $1,300 in Alaska and those that used it as either an entrance or exit during a visit to Alaska spent an average of $1,700. That’s compared to $941 in average spending of the average Alaska summer visitor.
“For every dollar of general fund money not budgeted to AMHS, there will be $2.30 less economic activity in Alaska,” explained the report.
The report noted that many coastal communities that have high employment with the marine highway, like Ketchikan and Haines, would be particularly hard hit by cuts to the ferries, as would fishermen who rely on the ferries to ship seafood. There would also likely be less school-related travel, a decline in quality of health because people would have to rely on costlier plane flights for medical access and even fewer cultural events.
The report highlighted that Anchorage residents were the second largest group of people using the marine highway system after Juneau.
Anchorage was also the top destination for non-resident passengers.