State House budget writers have restored much of the ferry system cut proposed by the governor for the next fiscal year.
The House Finance Committee on Thursday added about $2.1 million to the Alaska Marine Highway budget. Gov. Bill Walker’s spending plan, released in December, included $2.8 million – or 2 percent – less than this year’s budget.
Marine highway officials did not request the extra money. Spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said if it makes it through the budget process, the system will add a little more than seven weeks of sailings.
“That service would likely be added in May and June of 2018. And that would be to the vessel Fairweather and it would add three port calls per week to Lynn Canal and one additional run per week between Sitka and Juneau,” she said.
The Fairweather is a fast ferry that carries a little more than 200 passengers. It can hold about 30 cars and trucks.
Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz proposed the funding increase.
“Mainly it came out of the numerous comments that I received that talked about real issues that have developed because of the overall reduction in service that the marine highway system has had to adapt to due to their reduced funding,” he said.
One hotel owner told him Ortiz cuts cost him $100,000 in business, the lawmaker said. Others told him reduced ferry service makes travel more expensive, including trips for food or medical care.
Ortiz said marine highway reductions have totaled about 13 percent over two years. He said the rest of the Transportation Department has been cut far less and he wants to reduce the difference.
“While it certainly doesn’t equate to complete equity, it puts the whole equity picture a little bit closer to parity between coastal Alaska and the money we spend on roads and airports and things like that,” he said.
Ortiz did not suggest how the extra money would be used.
He proposed the extra money in an amendment to House Bill 57, the chamber’s version of the operating budget for the fiscal year starting in July.
It will have to make it through a House floor vote and the Senate to become official.
The governor could also veto the increase, as he has some other extra money in the Legislature’s budget.
Editor’s note: This report was updated to include details of how the extra money would be used.