House introduces new bills addressing AMHS

Legislative subcommittee approves $18.7 M for AMHS

Mayor Clay Koplin contemplates the Cordova Ferry Terminal’s empty dock. Cordova has been without ferry service since September 2019. (Jan. 16, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Members of the Alaska’s House Majority have introduced legislation aimed at charting a new course for the financially strapped Alaska Marine Highway System.

House Bill 249 by Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, would create the Alaska Marine Highway System Corp.

“It’s very clear from ongoing maintenance and operational issues that the Alaska Marine Highway System currently does not have the capacity to make sound, long-term decisions for the future health of the system,” Stutes said. “We must give the AMHS stability by pursuing management options that are not subject to the whims of a new administration every four years.

House Bill 253, introduced by Rep. Jonathan-Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, and several other lawmakers, would prevent the Alaska Department of Transportation from selling or disposing of a ferry without first obtaining approval from lawmakers. The proposal would help protect past investments into the marine highway system by ensuring that significant public process occurs before any ferries are permanently removed from the transportation system critical to the state’s coastal communities.

“Many Alaskans share my concern that the Dunleavy administration may dismantle the ferry system to the point that, like Humpty Dumpty, it cannot be put back together again,” Kriss-Tomkins said. “This legislation is co-sponsored by coastal legislators from across the state and is something of a mayday to help save our marine highway.”

Meanwhile, members of a House budget subcommittee working on the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ budget voted last week to add $18.7 million into the Alaska Marine Highway System budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“We need to do something now to get ferries operating,” said Speaker of the House Bruce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, a member of the subcommittee.

Still, there is a long way to go for those funds to be accessible for AMHS. The budget proposal now heads to the House Finance Committee for consideration. Then it must be vetted on the House floor, in the Senate and finalized by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“Shelves in grocery stores are empty,” said Stutes, also a member of the DOT budget subcommittee, chair of the House Transportation Committee and a member of the Alaska Marine Highway Reshaping Work Group.

“Alaskans are missing medical appointments. Mothers are turning to Facebook to find diapers for their babies. The Alaska Marine Highway System’s struggles are felt statewide,” she said. “Today’s amendment is about making sure ferry service resumes so coastal Alaskans can get back to life as normal.”

“Funds voted on today will be significant in reinstating stable service to people across Alaska,” said Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau. “We will continue working until the ferries are up and running again.”

The marine highway system is of critical importance to the economic, social and educational wellbeing of Alaska’s coastal communities, who rely on scheduled ferry service for supply runs, the transport of visitors to and from special events and residents for business, medical, educational and other person trips. Many of those in the fisheries industry traditionally have brought their own housing to coastal communities during various fishing seasons so they can have their families nearby while engaged in harvesting or processing.