Southeast Conference brainstorms a fix for Alaska’s ferries

Robert Venables is the former city manager of Haines. He says that the legislature understands that “there’s a true sense of crisis” in the system. (Robert Woolsey, KCAW)
Robert Venables is the former city manager of Haines. He says that the legislature understands that “there’s a true sense of crisis” in the system. (Robert Woolsey, KCAW)

Gov. Bill Walker is serious about finding a fix for Alaska’s struggling ferry system.

He signed earlier this year a Memorandum of Understanding with Sitka’s Garry White, who chairs the Southeast Conference, empowering the conference to look for solutions to the Alaska Marine Highway’s ongoing problems.

Robert Venables, the energy coordinator of the Southeast Conference and also chairman of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, how the Southeast Conference plans to tackle its new mission.

It’s called the Alaska Marine Highway Reform project, and it begins August 20 with a statewide ferry summit in Anchorage.

That’s right. The ferry summit is going to be in Anchorage.

The irony wasn’t lost on audience member Pat Alexander.

“Who chose Anchorage for the site of that summit when the stakeholders are not in Anchorage?” Alexander asked.

Because the majority of the passengers are going into the interior and that a number of communities around Alaska use ferries that the organizations need a centralized location to meet, Venables said.

There would be more discussion on the ferry system next month, he said, when the Southeast Conference convenes for its annual meeting September 20 in Petersburg. The goal is to have draft recommendations in place which can then be forwarded to the legislature.

Venables didn’t hint at what those recommendations might look like. But he did say that there are viable, publicly-funded ferry systems working in the U.S. and Europe, and they could be a model — of sorts.

“We want to find out what will work for Alaska. It’s not going to reinvent the wheel, but it’s going to be a different-sized lug wrench once we get done figuring it out.”

Although having the support of the governor is a new twist, reforming the ferry system itself is not a new idea.

The Marine Transportation Advisory Board was formed in 2009 with an eye toward redesigning the system with more efficient sailings as fuel prices skyrocketed. At the time, there was some hope that the board would be more than simply advisory, in order to effect real change.

“I think there’s a true sense of desperation, and an acknowledgement that the system is in crisis,” Venables said. “The Marine Transportation Advisory Board is a community liaison network that is available for advising the Department (of Transportation) should they choose to. This is kind of a strategic task force to create a business and operational plan.”

With the state expecting another year unprecedented budget deficits, the legislature likely will not look favorably on a plan that appears costly — no matter how efficient it is.

Venables nevertheless expects lawmakers to be responsive.

“The legislature’s looking for answers as much as anybody,” he said. “They’re not looking for additional requests for funding, but they’re looking for solutions that will make the state’s transportation system truly viable — and at a lower cost.”

“So I think they are very anxious to see this type of effort happen. The ones that we’ve spoken to have shown support and are glad to see the users of the system really at the helm — so Alaskans are driving the process — rather than politicians.”

Compared to some other state agencies, the Marine Highway System survived last year’s budget process relatively unscathed. It took a 10 percent cut during budget negotiations, and the governor did not veto the cut in favor of something larger.

Nevertheless, the system is considering taking one ferry offline completely — the Taku — and looking into putting it up for sale.

KCAW - Sitka

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