Update on PWSEDD coming to Cordova on July 11

Learn more about the reform initiative online at www.amhsreform.com

A reform initiative for the Alaska Marine Highway System is in progress and Cordova area residents are invited to learn all about it and offer comments at an open house July 11, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Cordova Center.

The session will be hosted by the Prince William Sound Economic Development District, in conjunction with the Southeast Conference and the cities of Cordova, Whittier and Valdez to gather public comment for the reform initiative project team.

Presenters will include representatives of the Elliot Bay Design Group in Seattle, who are overseeing the design phase, and the McDowell Group, in Juneau, which is involved in the financial analysis, said Wanetta Ayers, interim executive director for the PWSEDD.

Two more open house events are set for July 12 in Whittier and July 13 in Valdez.

Given the importance of the marine highway transportation system to the economies and lifestyle of Prince William Sound communities, open house organizers are hoping more people will inform themselves via information available at the open houses and online on what has been done and offer their comments at the open houses and onlie.

Efforts to reform and revitalize the state’s ferry system began in May 2016.

Phase one concluded in November, with publication of the AMHS Governance Study (http://www.seconference.org/sites/default/files/Transportation%20AMHS%20Reform%20Final%20Draft%20Report%20Phase%20One.pdf) recommending that the marine highway system be converted to a public corporation, much like the Alaska Railroad Corp.

Enterprise corporations operate more freely than a lie agency, Ayers said. They have a separate board of directors and different procurement rules, a more private sector approach to business. Other transportation systems that operate as an enterprise corporation have proven successful, she said.

In Prince William Sound over the last two years, marine highway service has been on the Aurora only. AMHS has seen a double digit drop in traffic because travel on the Aurora takes twice as long as on the Chenaga, the fast ferry not now in service.

In terms of the theoretical losses of operating the ferries, the state loses more money operating the Chenega than the Aurora, but the time issue, along with a whole host of other issues, including a lack of some shoreside infrastructure to accommodate fast ferries, has prompted the reform initiative process.

“We have to ask ourselves as a state and Prince William Sound region, what happens if they (legislators) come back with the next set of cuts, how much of that is tolerable,” Ayers said. “This is a healthy exercise in what do you want your state, region and communities to look like,” she said.

In phase two, now underway, the project team is focusing on a thorough financial review of operations an assessment of funding sources and cost saving measures, and ways to optimize the fleet, ferry schedules and management processes. The purpose of the open houses is to familiarize communities in Prince William Sound with what has been learned and to hear their comments.

“The schedule for the reform initiative is moving quickly,” said Mark Lynch, president of the PWSEDD board of directors, and city manager at Whittier.

“We need Prince William Sound stakeholders to engage in this process in order for our needs and perspectives to be reflected in the next round of recommendations.”

The PWSEDD has a separate work group looking at other options for the region, which are complementary to the reform initiative, he said.

A draft of the phase two report is to be presented at the Southeast Conference’s annual meeting, scheduled Sept. 19-21 in Haines. These findings are expected to be advanced for consideration by legislators in their 2018 session, Ayers said.

For more information and to receive updates on the reform initiative, log on to www.amhsreform.com

The site offers background information on the project, a venue to offer comments online and other ways to participate in the project.

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Margaret Bauman is a veteran Alaska journalist focused on covering fisheries and environmental issues. Bauman has been writing for The Cordova Times since 2010. You can reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com.