Republicans complain about focus on ferries, suggesting ‘modern infrastructure’ like roads as easy replacement

(Photo by Gillfoto/Wikimedia Commons)

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.

[PDF: The Economic Impacts of the Alaska Marine Highway System]

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.

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6 Comments on "Republicans complain about focus on ferries, suggesting ‘modern infrastructure’ like roads as easy replacement"

  1. Barrett Fletcher | March 15, 2019 at 9:23 pm | Reply

    I was raised back east. We routinely paid significant fees to use the freeways ( Mass Pike, NJ Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, Pennsylvania Turnpike)
    It’d be much cheaper and easier to ‘privatize’ the Glenn from the intersection with the Parks than too sell off the Marine Highway infrastructure.

  2. Barrett Fletcher | March 15, 2019 at 9:28 pm | Reply

    The Alaska Highway from the border to Fairbanks already has the infrastructure for toll collection Just sell it to some untraceable holding company that might be able to profit from it and kick something back to the Alaska Republicans. Easy Peasy.

  3. Sarah, with all due respect, the financial debate over the Ferry System is at the top of the list as it is a most important artery within the soul of Alaska. Being a Ketchikan product, the Ferry System touches the heart and wallet of many Alaskan families. SAVE THE FERRY SYSTEM, CUT BACK THE SERVICE NOT THE HEART OF ALASKA.

  4. The shortsighted dismissal of Southeast Alaska’s infrastructure needs (ie. ferry system) showcases the ignorant priorities of many legislators living in road-connected Alaska. One expensive seasonal road from Juneau to a short ferry to Haines DOES NOTHING for the rest of the island communities in Southeast Alaska. If we saw any signs you are listening to resident concerns maybe you wouldn’t be hearing such complaints! Wake up! The ferry system is a MARINE ROAD and you are causally cancelling it like it is a nonissue!

  5. Still shocked that Ms. Rasmussen has the nerve to talk about lack of street lights on an Anchorage street upgrade. Street lights? Are you kidding? When Southeast can go without transportation. Guess I don’t understand that unapologetic, entitled attitude.

  6. Thank you Matt Buxton.

    The House of Representatives has a copy of the report, despite Dunleavy’s attempts to hide the truth.

    I have emailed the entire Alaskan House of Representatives with an attached copy of the The report by the McDowell Group for the Department of Transportation, The Economic Impacts of the
    Alaska Marine Highway System.

    I also gave an online option to download the report themselves.

    Some cites that I listed from the report are:
    Page 1:

    “The State of Alaska’s General Fund investment of $117 million resulted in a total return on investment of $273 million, a return of more than 2-to-1.

    The State of Alaska invested $117 million in General Fund monies in AMHS in fiscal year 2014. That investment was more than doubled in terms of economic benefits to Alaska.”

    Page 23:

    “In terms of economic impacts attributable to AMHS, it is more accurate to consider the subset of AMHS non-resident passengers for whom the ferry played a critical role in their Alaska trip: those who entered and/or exited the state via the ferry. Among these visitors, the average per-person spending was $1,700 – significantly higher than the average of $941 among all Alaska visitors.

    Applying the $1,700 per person average to the estimated number of AMHS non-resident passengers who entered and/or exited the state via ferry (17,000) results in a total spending estimate of $28.9 million. ”

    Page 37:

    “Loss of return on investment: For every dollar of General Fund money not budgeted to AMHS, there will be $2.30 less economic activity in Alaska. ”

    Recommend reading the entire pages 37,38; which is titled:

    Impacts of Reduced AMHS Service.

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