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New bipartisan bill could mean more ferry funding

Posted: May 12, 2011 - 9:36pm

Bills offering bipartisan support for improvements to the Alaska Marine Highway System were introduced to both houses of Congress Thursday.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., along with Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., introduced the bills to provide $200 million in federal funding for ferry services across the country from fiscal year 2012 through FY 2018. The money would be divided so that half each year would be distributed by a formula that accounts straightforward factors such as annual passenger and carried vehicle numbers, while the U.S. Department of Transportation would distribute the other half through a competitive process.

“In Alaska, our ferry system is not an alternative route — it’s a primary method of transportation,” Murkowski stated in a release. “The Alaska Marine Highway System totals more miles than the distance from Seattle to Miami. This bill is an economic engine and improves our way of life, from Dutch Harbor to Metlakatla.”

Additional ways to strengthen ferry systems through the bill include making systems eligible to compete for funding under the Clean Fuels Grant Program, establishing a Ferry Joint Program Office within the U.S. Department of Transportation, requiring the Department to ensure the National Ferry Database is consistent with the database maintained by the Federal Transit Administration and authorizing funding to establish a National Ferry Transportation Institute at a college or university.

The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities thinks this could be good news for the Alaska Marine Highway System. Deputy Commissioner for Marine Operations Michael Neussl said he was glad to see the release announcing the bill and also pleased that it had such bipartisan sponsorship.

“Obviously the Alaska Marine Highway System is pleased with what the bill presents to ensure adequate funding,” he said.

“Having that reliable transportation system is important,” he said. “It’s an essential lifeline to the communities around here.”

Neussl said that because the water highways are so necessary to ways of life here, more enhancements and funding are always welcome to aid situations that arise in the system. He cited the upcoming ferry outage in Hoonah as an example.

Neussl said the other points in the bill besides funding all looked good too, saying, “Those all make sense. I support all those.”

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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