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House Transportation bill aims funding toward Alaska ferries

Posted: July 2, 2012 - 12:02am

State ferry officials and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska are praising a new transportation bill, passed by the House of Representatives last week, for how it treats ferries.

The Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012 provides reliable funding for state ferry systems, and changes how those fund are allocated, according to Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., an ally of Young and Alaska on ferry issues.

“This bill is a huge win for states like Washington and Alaska that have so many residents who depend on safe and reliable ferry service to stay connected,” Larsen said.

Young spokesman Luke Miller provided Larsen’s comment.

The changes in the new bill to how funds are allocated are likely to mean more money for Alaska, said Mike Neussl, deputy commissioner for marine operations for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Federal transit funds in some cases go not to roads, but to ferries. The new formula gives new weight to route miles, as well as factoring in vehicles carried and passengers carried.

That’s likely to help Alaska, Neussl said.

“I think we outnumber any other ferry system in terms of route-miles,” he said.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has 3,500 miles of ferry runs, running from Bellingham in Washington, through British Columbia and out the Aleutian Chain.

“We consider route-miles a good factor for the Alaska Marine Highway System because our system is spread out from Bellingham to Unalaska,” Neussl said.

The bill includes $67 million per year for the next two years, he said. Final distribution decisions still have to be made, but Alaska has a good chance in competing for the money, he said.

Young said that changing the allocation factors was his goal in the bill’s language.

“I am especially pleased that this bill places great importance on route miles — this one provision will ensure that Alaskan ferries receive the level of funding they deserve,” Young said, in a statement also provided by Miller.

Young pointed out that in both Washington and Alaska, ferries sometimes serve as the state’s highways.

Neussl said the federal funding is used for the aging ferries’ major overhauls that are done every several years.

That’s necessary, he said, to keep the aging fleet operating.

“When you go onboard the Malaspina, you don’t think ‘Hey, I’m walking onto a very old ship here,’” he said. That’s because the Malaspina, built in 1963, and other vessels in the fleet have been regularly maintained and upgraded.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com

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