Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
The MV Matanuska awaits repairs at the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal on Thursday as lawmakers at the state Capitol debated whether the Alaska Marine Highway System was actually a highway. A bill that would shape long-term planning for the system passed out of committee.

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire The MV Matanuska awaits repairs at the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal on Thursday as lawmakers at the state Capitol debated whether the Alaska Marine Highway System was actually a highway. A bill that would shape long-term planning for the system passed out of committee.

Bill that would reshape AMHS leadership moves forward

Ideological divide over the word ‘highway.’

A bill that would reshape leadership for the Alaska Marine Highway System took a crucial step toward becoming a law on Thursday. But not before debate over whether the ferry system that connects coastal communities constitutes a highway.

A bill to rework AMHS governance from House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, was advanced out of the House Transportation Committee Thursday afternoon, but not before a debate over whether the ferry system actually constitutes a highway. An amendment from Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake, to change the word “highway” to “transportation” in the name of the governance board, which more accurately described the board, he said.

[Governor’s new bill would change long-term planning for state’s ferry system]

Stutes and Democratic lawmakers on the committee balked, insisting the ferries are an integral part of the state’s highway system. The marine highway is the only state highway people are expected to pay a fee to use, Stutes said, and is intended to connect coastal communities.

“Don’t know where to start to say that I disagree,” Stutes said.

Ferry supporters often mention the state’s ferries are part of the highway system when advocating for its funding.

McCabe defended his amendment saying the name change could open the purview of the governance board to areas beyond ferries. But he pushed back against referring to the ferry system as a highway, saying the mere fact AMHS consisted of boats prevented it from being a highway.

“It’s not a highway in the classic sense of the word,” McCabe said. “What roads are there in Tenakee (Springs)? I’m not sure that actually fits into the highway definition.”

McCabe also moved an amendment that would have prevented active or retired union members from serving on the governance board. That would prevent “stacking” the board with union officials, McCabe said, something he said he’d seen happen on the Alaska Police Standards Council.

McCabe’s Republican colleague on the committee, Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, voted for all of McCabe’s amendments. A third Republican on the committee, Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, was absent from the meeting. When she announced she would be caucusing with Democrats and independents as she did the previous session, Stutes cited the caucus’ ongoing support for the ferry system as a major reason.

Last year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy commissioned a work group to draft recommendations for better management of the ferry system, and has submitted a bill based on the group’s findings. Though many of those suggestions received a cool reception from ferry stakeholders, there’s widely held agreement on the need for long-term planning away from year-to-year budget and policy battles. The ferry’s stakeholders have said they’re willing to work toward change.

The governor introduced a bill reshaping the current body overseeing the ferry, the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, into an Alaska Marine Highway Operations and Planning Board, which would give the system’s leadership more flexibility. The governor’s office said many provisions within the bill were drawn from the work group’s recommendation. Stutes has a similar bill that’s been co-sponsored by several Southeast Alaska lawmakers including Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau.

Under the governor’s version, Stutes said, only the governor would appoint members of the governance board, which she found unacceptable. Her bill would allow appointments from various groups, including both bodies of the Legislature, she said, adding she had spoken to the governor about reconciling the bills.

[Lack of planning hampers AMHS, lawmakers say]

In that same meeting, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities officials began a presentation on AMHS and how the department is working to implement findings from the reshaping work group.

Deputy Commissioner Rob Carpenter updated lawmakers on repairs to the MV Tustumena and the designing process for new crew quarters on Alaska-class ferries. The presentation was truncated, as the meeting ran short on time.

Carpenter will resume his presentation to the committee on Saturday, where McCabe asked him to provide information on recent lapses in service and private contracting as an alternative. The committee’s chair Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, said the committee would take those issues up on the weekend.

“It probably has a lot to do with the reshaping committee and those issues we talked about in (Stutes’ bill),” Hopkins said.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

More in News

Alaska Department of Fish and Game logo. (Graphic by Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Board of Fisheries approves Kenai River king salmon action plan

The plan adds bait restrictions for in-river fisheries, doubles the sport bag limit for sockeye salmon, and adds a swath of restrictions to the commercial setnet fishery

The Kenai Municipal Airport is seen on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
New Grant Aviation planes to double service’s flight capacity

The first of two Cessna 208B EX Grand Caravans will start transporting passengers on Monday

Stickers are available for voters at the Kenai No. 1 precinct for Election Day on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna to hold ‘I Voted’ sticker design contest

City council members approved the program during their Wednesday night meeting

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, speaks in support of a bill increasing state funds for public education in the Alaska House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Bill seeking to bump use of Alaska Performance Scholarship clears the House with unanimous support

The money is awarded to high-performing high school graduates to help pay for postsecondary education at participating institutions in Alaska

Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Ryan Anderson answers questions from state senators during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
State officials working to meet Friday deadline for revised transportation plan

The federal government rejected the plan on Feb. 9, citing numerous deficiencies

Travis Every, top left, speaks in support of fishing opportunity for the east side setnet fishery before the State Board of Fisheries at the Egan Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Local fishers talk conservation, opportunity before Board of Fisheries in Anchorage

Local fishers from the Kenai Peninsula traveled to Anchorage this weekend to… Continue reading

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, presents information on a bill establishing a voluntary buyback program for Cook Inlet’s east side setnet fishery on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Bjorkman bill would pay bonuses to nationally certified teachers

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development estimates that the bonus program would apply to about 215 of Alaska’s estimated 7,315 teachers — about 3%

Alaska senators meet with members of the media to discuss education legislation after a press conference by Gov. Mike Dunleavy on the topic on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Dunleavy threatens veto of education bill if more of his priorities aren’t added

It is not certain there would be the 40 votes necessary to override a veto by the governor

A map displays a wide-ranging special weather statement, published Tuesday by the National Weather Service, covering Southcentral Alaska. (Map courtesy of National Weather Service)
Strong winds, low wind chills forecast through Friday

Wind chills over night may reach as low as -20 to -40 degrees in much of Southcentral

Most Read