A bill introduced last week by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, would add a 12th member to the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, giving Southcentral Alaska another representative on the board.
Stevens, who was the previous Senate president, said Monday that the bill would provide local residents, including many of his constituents, with more representation.
“I just want to expand the board a little bit to include communities in the west route area,” said Stevens, referring to the western reaches of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s ferry network. He added, “It just adds that citizen input to it. … As a legislator, that’s often one of the complaints I get is from folks as to how the system is ‘not working.’ So they need to have a voice. They need to have somebody who they can contact to have some input.”
The role of the board, which is often referred to by its acronym “MTAB,” is to advise the governor and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities on issues relating to the AMHS. It includes five representatives for coastal regions of the state served by the ferry system; a retired ferry captain or engineer; business, tourism and union representatives; and two members of the public at large. Members are appointed by the governor.
“The board is primarily where the citizens have input into the Marine Highway System,” Stevens said. “The board doesn’t have funds, it doesn’t determine routes, it just has community input.”
The new seat would include communities on Kodiak Island and the Kenai Peninsula.
Most of the communities that would get a dedicated representative if Stevens’ bill becomes law are already represented by the person on the board from Southwest Alaska. Since 2007, that person has been Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt.
Marquardt, who is in Juneau for an MTAB meeting Tuesday, said Monday afternoon that she is unsure why the change is being proposed.
“I guess I’m just curious as to what problem is meant to be fixed by this change, because as an MTAB member, I’m unaware of any,” said Marquardt. “If Kodiak feels that they need their own representation, that’s fine. … I don’t take it personally. As a board member, the question then becomes, ‘What’s the issue that they feel so strongly about that they feel they need their own representation, and how many other communities now are going to say the same thing?’”
Marquardt said she has not spoken with Stevens about his bill.
Robert Venables, chairman of MTAB and its representative for northern Southeast Alaska, wrote in an email that the board has no official comment yet.
“However, on a personal note, I can see the wisdom of this addition,” Venables added. “Kodiak Island and the Kenai Peninsula represent a significant subset of ridership and is a hub for a number of communities with unique needs. MTAB has always welcomed public participation and is inclusive by nature.”
Lawmakers from coastal Alaska responded favorably Monday to S.B. 24, with Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, and Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, respectively the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and the chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, both saying they “don’t have a problem” with the bill.
“I think it’s a great idea. I have no problem with that at all. It adds more representation for (Stevens’) region, for Kodiak and Ouzinkie and Old Harbor and all these places,” Egan said. “They have ferry service, and they should be on MTAB. … We have more members on MTAB from Southeast than he does, and I think that they deserve more.”
Wilson agreed with her Senate counterpart.
“We’ve increased service to several different communities across the (Aleutian) chain, and so I think it’s very appropriate to add on another one because there’s more people involved than there used to be,” said Wilson. “It’s perfectly legitimate and fair. It’s only fair to do it.”
The co-chairman of the House Finance Committee — S.B. 24 has been referred to both Transportation and Finance — who is also from Kodiak, Republican Rep. Alan Austerman, said he had not read the bill, but had discussed its contents with Stevens. He called the proposal “a good idea.”
“We had a meeting in Kodiak through our Chamber of Commerce wanting us to take a hard look at that,” Austerman said. “I think it’s the proper thing to do.”
With Kodiak and other communities included in the same region Marquardt represents, Austerman said, “I don’t think there was the same input into the board that we would get from having our own representative.”
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, said he thinks the proposal is “great.”
“The Alaska ferry system is fundamental to coastal communities across Alaska, and this bill gives coastal communities in Southcentral and Southwest Alaska voice that they deserve,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. He added, “I’ve never been to the Aleutians or the Alaska Peninsula, mind you, but I have read about it, and my understanding is that, I mean, this is a distinct region (with) distinct considerations from the sort of Southcentral—Kodiak area.”
Marquardt offered a different perspective.
“I think they fit together, actually, very well,” Marquardt said. “We use the same ferry, the (M/V) Tustumena. And anyone who comes out to the Aleutians starts in either Homer or Kodiak.”
Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he was not familiar with the bill, but he noted that “it adds more expense whenever you expand a board.”
Stevens estimated the cost of adding a member at about $2,000 per year. MTAB is a volunteer board and most of its meetings are conducted by teleconference, but it does meet in a physical location at least once or twice per year. The next is those meetings is Tuesday at the Vocational Training and Resource Center in Juneau.
“If they have … a physical meeting, we do cover travel and per diem,” Stevens acknowledged.
Asked if he had any concerns about the cost, Egan responded by highlighting the importance of the AMHS to coastal Alaska.
“Everybody keeps forgetting that it’s our highway,” said Egan. “You know, we have 5,000-plus miles of highway here in the state. We also have about 3,600 miles of highway on water. And I think it’s about time that coastal communities continue to get represented. And I don’t have a problem with expanding MTAB at all.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.