The M/V Matanuska tied up at the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

The M/V Matanuska tied up at the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: The corrupting of AMHS policymaking

his a story of two Alaska governors who made bad AMHS policy decisions.

  • Monday, September 7, 2020 9:56pm
  • Opinion

Tom Barrett, the chair of the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group, says people living in communities served by the system need to admit we “could do with less.” I agree. But where Barrett meant less ferry service, I want fewer politicians corrupting policymaking for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

This a story of two Alaska governors who either incompetently or mischievously made bad AMHS policy decisions. And our current one who is doing it because he’s wedded to a campaign promise he can’t keep.

Politics is rooted in the 15th century French word “policie.” Over 100 years, it evolved from the “study or practice of government” to an “established system of government or administration of a state.” Those in government who crafted good public policy were said to be putting “prudence or wisdom” into action.

Prudence and wisdom weren’t part of the decision made by former Gov. Tony Knowles to acquire two fast ferries. That marine engineering technology hadn’t been thoroughly tested. Before the Fairweather and Chenega were delivered, a similarly unwise experiment in British Columbia had already failed. Both ferries are now for sale.

Bad policy decision? Perhaps. But Paulette Simpson thinks it was “a scheme to scuttle” construction of the road up Lynn Canal.

Let’s apply that test to the decision by former Gov. Sean Parnell that gave us the M/Vs Tazlina and Hubbard, two brand-new ferries that can’t function as dayboats between Juneau, Haines and Skagway.

Prior to those being ordered, the state had already begun design work for a 350-foot ferry to replace one of the old mainline ships. It would have been equipped with crew quarters. But they wouldn’t be needed if the dayboats could make a round trip between ports in 12 hours or less.

To make that possible, they were designed for more efficient vehicle loading and unloading through the ship’s bow and stern. But the state’s ferry terminals aren’t built for that configuration.

Administrative incompetence? Possibly. But drill down a little and it’s a flipped script from what Simpson described.

In January 2012, the Parnell administration began the scoping process for the Juneau Access Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Eleven months later, he scuttled the new mainline ferry in favor of the two new dayboats.

The DSEIS was published in May 2014. Building the Lynn Canal road was the preferred alternative. The Tazlina and Hubbard would be used as shuttle ferries running between a new terminal at Katzehin and Haines and Skagway. Under a separate project, the Haines ferry terminal would be modified to accommodate their end loading configuration. And mainline ferry service to both communities would be discontinued.

It’s no secret that Parnell intended to build the road. So, the day boats were never intended to sail up and down Lynn Canal as he claimed when the design change was made. But to have stated that before the DSEIS was complete would have exposed a corrupt process in which the administration never genuinely considered any of the other alternatives.

Although Knowles and Parnell wasted a of money, at least they thought residents living in the Lynn Canal corridor would derive a benefit from their decisions.

The AMHS politics being played by Gov. Mike Dunleavy are worse. It’s already negatively impacted every community the system serves.

Remember, during his campaign for governor, he told voters he had no plans to “hack, cut or destroy” the AMHS. But he’s locked into an ideological budget fantasy. “Expenditures cannot exceed existing revenue” and it can’t be balanced by taking “additional funds from Alaskans through taxes or the PFD.”

When that didn’t work, he scraped together drastic spending cuts from across the state. Among them, and under the guise of “Improve Services and Reduced Costs” he proposed reducing AMHS’s budget by two-thirds.

Nobody enjoys admitting they were wrong. Even rarer are politicians who publicly confess that policies that caused hardships to some citizens were contrived to support the flawed agenda that helped get them elected.

The Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group doesn’t need to question Dunleavy’s budget plan. But if they don’t tell him it was utterly irresponsible to completely disrupt ferry service to communities that depend on it, they’ll be contributing to the corruption of public policymaking throughout Alaska.


• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.


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