Senators propose way for ferries to run this winter

Senators propose way for ferries to run this winter

Service would be reduced, but wouldn’t disappear

Users of the Alaska Marine Highway System have likely had Oct. 1 circled on their calendars.

In Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal, the ferry system would stop running Oct. 1 and stay out of service until the following June. If a group of senators get their way, the ferries will be able to stay on the water during that time, albeit with reduced service.

The Senate Finance Transportation Subcommittee approved a budget proposal Wednesday morning that includes funding for a reduced ferry service from October to June. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and chair of the committee, has been particularly vocal this session about preserving the ferry system and spoke at length at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Surely, a reduced service is better than no service,” Stedman said.

While the governor proposes cutting about $98 million from the AMHS budget, the Senate Transportation Committee’s proposed budget would cut about $44 million, according to materials from Wednesday’s meeting. The committee’s proposal doesn’t cut from the ferry system’s maintenance budget (which the governor’s does), Stedman said.

Dunleavy has said the hope is to conduct a study and figure out a viable way for the marine highway to continue running. The state recently issued a notice to award Northern Economics the contract to do the study, which is expected to be completed in October.

The second company that submitted a bid for the study, MAP Consulting LLC, bid about $25,000 less than Northern Economics, according to the Associated Press. MAP Consulting is protesting the state’s intent to award the contract, according to the report.

In this file photo, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, Co-Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, raises his concerns about the proposed lack of funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System at the Capitol on Feb. 19, 2019. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire File)

In this file photo, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, Co-Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, raises his concerns about the proposed lack of funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System at the Capitol on Feb. 19, 2019. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire File)

Speaking at the meeting Wednesday, Stedman said he hopes a reduced ferry service buys the administration more time to evaluate that study and figure out a long-term plan for the marine highway.

Stedman said there won’t be any specific language in this budget proposal about how exactly the ferries will run. The proposal gives the administration the ability to “adapt the schedule,” Stedman said. If a community feels that it needs more service, they can reach out and request service. Stedman pointed out the Southeast Alaska village of Angoon in particular, saying the village doesn’t have an airport or barge service and is extremely dependent on the ferry system.

“We’re trying to keep the system totally intact,” Stedman said, “and give us some time for the administration to have discussions with the labor groups and the communities, and then the Legislature will be able to review whatever’s brought before us next winter at this committee.”

The Senate Finance Committee, which Stedman co-chairs, will consider the proposals of all the budget subcommittees when the subcommittees all wrap up their proposals this week or next. Then the budget will have to go to the whole Senate, then possibly back to the House before going to Dunleavy for final approval.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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