Ferry-loving Sen. Stedman blasts DOT’s attempt to pin ferry troubles on Legislature

Sen. Bert Stedman discusses the operating budget on May 1, 2019. As the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Stedman introduced a bill that would split the PFD from the budget. It ultimately lost his support once it was upped to $3,000. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman says Department of Transportation officials are wrong to blame the Alaska Legislature for the severe reduction in ferry service this year, arguing that it was the Legislature that worked to avoid the total elimination of ferry service that was proposed in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget.

The comments come after the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities finally released the draft results of a $250,000 study seeking options to further reduce state support for the system. At Wednesday’s meeting of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, where the study was rolled out, DOT Deputy Commissioner Mary Siroky said the Legislature “made a huge policy statement” with the reductions to ferry funding in this year’s budget.

She said, lawmakers’ policy is “to generate as much profit as possible, with service being secondary.”

There was no mention of the fact that the governor had proposed cutting funding for the ferry service to about $25 million, which would have eliminated all ferry service by Oct. 1, 2019 (nor was there any mention of the governor’s abandoned campaign pledge for “no plan to hack, cut or destroy the marine highway system.”)

During the legislative session, several other legislators strongly opposed such deep cuts to what Stedman called “my beloved marine highway” and, knowing the governor was eager to use his veto pen, sought to negotiate a reduction with the thinking that “some service is better than no service.”

“It was disappointing to hear Department of Transportation officials try to pass the blame for the Alaska Marine Highway System’s current woes onto the Legislature,” said Stedman in a prepared statement that outlined some of the Legislature’s negotiations. “The administration’s proposed budget for the current fiscal year would have stopped all service on September 30, 2019. This was an elimination budget that would have led to the system’s demise.”

The end result of those negotiations was a $43 million cut that has seen many ports go without service for months, leaving communities without regular access to transportation for everything from food deliveries to school trips.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, also took issue with the department’s characterization of the Legislature’s stance, telling the Associated Press that the Legislature-driven cuts were made with Dunleavy’s veto power in mind.

“We couldn’t get the kind of funding that Alaska needs past this governor,” he told the AP.

Several other Southeast legislators have indicated that it’s already clear just halfway through the budget year that the cuts went too far and should be reversed to some extent (the Legislature did add an additional $5 million to the ferry system this year but that money was vetoed by Dunleavy).

Juneau Democratic Rep. Sara Hannan told the Associated Press that the cuts were “devastating beyond what we recognized them to be.”

As for the study itself, Senate Majority spokesman Daniel McDonald said Stedman is still reviewing the 145-page document before commenting.

Kiehl was quick to offer his assessment on Wednesday, telling the Anchorage Daily News that it was “junior-high level work” and the Juneau Empire that the report, which was released three months after it was delivered to the state, that it’s “widely incomplete” and that “I kinda hope the state doesn’t pay for it.”

The report found that privatization of the ferry system is not a feasible option if the state intends to reduce funding down to about what Dunleavy had initially proposed—$24 million annually—if it still intends to maintain even a minimal level of service to communities. Instead, it recommends a formation of public corporations to take over the operation of the ferries.

The results of the study aren’t intended to influence budget discussions this year, but Siroky said they would likely play a role in the 2021 budget talks.

Still, it is all predicated on the Legislature agreeing to reduce funding down to $24 million. Based on the response so far, that will be a tough sell.

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