House approves bill to bring long-term planning to beleaguered ferry system

The Alaska Marine Highway System. (Photo by Gillfoto/Wikimedia Commons

The state’s funding level of the Alaska Marine Highway System has been a major political battle under the Dunleavy administration, but today the House unanimously agreed that the system needs better oversight to chart the state ferry system’s future.

On a 37-0 vote, the House approved House Speaker Louise Stutes’ House Bill 63 that would establish a nine-member operations board tasked with overseeing and reviewing the system’s operations and making recommendations to keep it running efficiently and effectively.

“One of the biggest challenges facing the Alaska Marine Highway System is a lack of clarity and long-term planning objectives,” Stutes said in a prepared statement following the bill’s passage. “This bill takes an important step toward building the system Coastal Alaskans deserve by utilizing marine business expertise and focusing on improving fleet design and vessel deployment strategy. I am encouraged by the bipartisan effort that went into this bill, which is a reminder of how critical AMHS is to all Alaskans.”

The idea comes after a review of the system found that privatizing the system, as was initially suggested by the Dunleavy administration, was unlikely to be workable on all but a few of the routes. Instead, the report argued that the system needed better and more consistent oversight to ensure that things like vessel maintenance, routes and fares are properly maintained. One suggestion was the wholesale shift to a state corporation, akin to the Alaska Railroad, but that didn’t find enough traction.

Both Dunleavy and Stutes proposed separate bills establishing an Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board. While Dunleavy’s legislation would have put the makeup of the board wholly in the governor’s hands, Stutes’ bill would see two members appointed by the speaker of the House, two appointed by the Senate President, four appointed by the governor and the Transportation deputy commissioner. Dunleavy has challenged the legislative oversight on an executive board as unconstitutional, but because the board is largely advisory, the legislature believes it may pass muster.

Several Republicans, including those from communities not served by ferries who’ve been largely opposed to ferry spending, spoke in favor of the legislation, calling it a well-crafted bill that took into account several different perspectives while going through the legislative process.

On the House floor, Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins presented the bill and said the new board will be a significant step forward but acknowledged that the board will have limitations because it doesn’t have binding authority to enact its proposed changes, only to suggest them to the administration and Legislature.

“I think this is a really important and big step in the right direction,” he said. “I think it’s worth clarifying expectations that this isn’t going to be a panacea. This piece of legislation, while good, while well-conceived, while a lot of good work has gone into it, is but a step in the right direction. We shouldn’t just think that passage of this bill is going to fix all the ferry system’s woes.”

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