Alaska state ferry supporters rally as DOT offers $250,000 for privatization study

Supporters of the Alaska Marine Highway System participate in a rally at the Alaska Capitol in Juneau, March 20, 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

More than 100 people rallied Wednesday on the Capitol steps in Juneau protesting the governor’s plan to effectively shut down ferry service in October.

This comes as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration decided to offer more time — and more money — for a new study to explore public/private partnerships and assess cost-cutting options for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

“3,500 miles of coast serving 30 communities for almost 70 years, and this governor thinks we don’t need it,” Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, told the rally amid boos to the governor’s proposed budget.

It was a colorful rally with people coming from coastal villages and labor unions whose members work for the ferry system.

A small group broke out into a traditional Tlingit canoe song.

“A lot of people refer to the marine highway boats as ‘blue canoes,’ so it just really fits,” explained singer Nancy Keen of Juneau.

“Save the blue canoe!” another cried.

The Alaska Marine Highway System serves some communities that have no barges or scheduled jets — communities like Angoon. That’s where Joyce Frank and her husband, Kevin, are from.

They held a banner that read, “Don’t rock the boat. Save our ferries.”

There’s no barge, there’s no landing strip, and it’s a big issue for Angoon,” Kevin Frank Sr. said.

“If you take the ferry away, we absolutely have nothing at all,” added his wife Joyce Frank. She was among the more than 200 people that testified to a House committee urging the Legislature to reverse the governor’s cuts.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, told the rally a ferry shutdown would be unthinkable.

“Damn it, this is America!” Kiehl shouted to approving cheers. “We have the right to travel freely among our communities. Our commerce and our economy depends on moving people and freight between and among our communities.”

Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, speaks in support of the Alaska Marine Highway System at a rally held at the Alaska Capitol in Juneau, March 20, 2019. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy had campaigned on reducing state spending. Eliminating ferry service wasn’t part of his pitch. But now a 65 percent cut to the ferry budget is touted as a way of helping balance the budget without raising taxes, revising oil tax credits or touching permanent fund dividend checks.

Cutting the ferry budget was only one prong of the administration’s approach. The other was to pay a private consultant up to $90,000 to study privatization and other options. That report would have been due July 31.

But the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ Southcoast regional spokeswoman Aurah Landau said there was little interest.

DOT received one response to the original RFP, and we had heard from interested parties that a longer time frame and a larger budget was needed in order to provide for a more in-depth study,” she said.

This week the state revised its request to expand the scope of work — and the budget. Now it’s offering up to $250,000 for a study due in mid-October. That’s two weeks past Oct. 1, the day the ferry system would cease regular service without more funding.

“The governor’s budget is proposing that it would shut down in October, and that’s the proposal that’s on the table right now,” Landau said.

New proposals for the study are due April 2. A contract would be awarded on April 9.

Petersburg resident David Kensinger is frustrated with the Dunleavy administration’s approach.

What are they trying to find out that’s not already out there?” Kensinger said by phone. “You know, that would be my first suggestion: (It) would be for them to take a really close look at the past reform project.”

The Petersburg small business owner is a member of the steering committee for the Alaska Marine Highway Reform Project. He said ferry privatization isn’t realistic, or it would’ve happened long ago.

“They’re not going to find anybody out there that’s going to take on the current system and run it off the fare box,” Kensinger said. “It’s just too expensive to operate with ancient vessels.”

The state’s revised request for proposals asks prospective consultants to incorporate previous studies, including the reform committee’s work.

Kensinger said that makes sense. But he questions whether $250,000 could be better spent elsewhere in the system.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate finance committees are reviewing the transportation budget. That’s where legislators will have a hand in salvaging or scuttling Alaska’s ferry system.

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