Ferry funding bill moves toward House floor

Stutes: Coastal Alaskans spoke up and demanded stability

The Ferry M/V Aurora arrives in Cordova for the first time since 2019. (April 21, 2021) Photo by David Little/for The Cordova Times

Updated April 29.

A massive operating budget bill heading for the House floor in Juneau includes upwards of $76 million to forward fund the Alaska Marine Highway System, assuring a more reliable ferry schedule that could boost reservations and the economies of coastal communities.

As of Tuesday, April 27, the committee substitute for House Bill 69 was still before the House Finance Committee, but was expected to hit the House floor within days and then move on to the Senate.

Once finalized by lawmakers, the bill will forward fund AMHS to cover operations from this July through the end of 2022, with 18 months of operational certainty. This would allow AMHS to retain receipts from ticket sales and replenish the Alaska Marine Highway Fund.

Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, is working to push the funding through in concert with the Senate and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, said Kerry Crocker, a legislative aide to Stutes.

Stutes, a strong supporter of AMHS, thanked the governor and fellow lawmakers for “supporting a plan that will finally provide some certainty for the ferry system.”

“Coastal Alaskans who spoke up and demanded stability in the Alaska Marine Highway System are the reason we are finally at a point where political leaders across the state and from both parties support long-term funding,” she said.

“A healthy marine highway supports virtually every essential service, connects economies, provides access to health care and fills grocery store shelves,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan. “It is the state’s responsibility to make sure Alaskans have reliable infrastructure, and this plan advances toward that goal.”

The forward funds would also have the added benefit of increasing revenue. The forward funding plan will allow AMHS to establish a baseline, Crocker said. “They will have that much money no matter what the Legislature gives them in future years.

“When the ferry schedules come out 200 days in advance, there is an increase of 5-10% in revenue [paid reservations]. That’s about $3.7 million in revenue or an 8% increase in revenue for that portion of the year.”

Forward funding will allow AMHS to schedule the Aurora, a 235-class vessel that runs between Cordova, Valdez and Whittier, for service through the fall and winter.

The Aurora is currently slated to run five days a week through September.

The state’s new Alaska-class ferries, the Hubbard and the Tazlina, were built to be day boats, but with the additional funding will get crew quarters, a process that, assuming the money is appropriated, would take about one year, Crocker said.

Both vessels are currently parked in Ketchikan.