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Senate Transportation Committee hears testimony on ferry plan shift

Some prominent Juneauites support, but more opposition heard to new vessels

Posted: January 24, 2013 - 7:10pm  |  Updated: January 25, 2013 - 1:08am
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, left, Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, Rep. Doug Issacson, R-North Pole, and Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, right, take notes as they listen to public testimony during a Joint Transportation Committee meeting on the Alaska-class ferry plan changes at the Capitol on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, left, Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, Rep. Doug Issacson, R-North Pole, and Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, right, take notes as they listen to public testimony during a Joint Transportation Committee meeting on the Alaska-class ferry plan changes at the Capitol on Thursday.

Public testimony before Thursday afternoon’s joint meeting of the House and Senate Transportation committees was split on Gov. Sean Parnell’s decision last year to abandon plans for the proposed Alaska-class ferry in favor of procuring two smaller “shuttle ferries.”

Supporters of the change sounded common themes, such as creating a more “efficient” Alaska Marine Highway System, improving the chances that the new ships can be built in Ketchikan, and the limited $120 million budget for the ferry project that state officials have said the Alaska-class ferry was set to exceed.

Similarly, critics chastised Parnell and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities for changing direction last year without seeking public input, wondered whether the smaller ships now being proposed will be able to safely navigate the upper Lynn Canal in rough weather, and doubted the state’s claim that it can procure two shuttle ferries for less than the price of one Alaska-class vessel.

The public comment portion of the meeting started out with a majority of people who testified voicing support for the changes.

Seven of the nine people who showed up to testify in person, including well-known Juneau figures like Assemblymember Randy Wanamaker, Juneau Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Cathie Roemmich and former Capital City Republicans Chairwoman Paulette Simpson, praised Parnell and the DOT&PF for their decision to move back toward the original 2006 concept for a shuttle ferry to serve Southeast Alaska, a plan that evolved over the following years into the 350-foot Alaska-class ferry concept.

Wanamaker cited his past experience with ferries in Washington state in making his argument for the shuttle ferries.

“Shuttle ferries across the country are something that I’ve seen, and they are very efficient, they work well and people enjoy them, and they are operated at a lower cost,” Wanamaker said. “I encourage the department to stay with this concept. … I think it’s a good idea, and I encourage people to be open-minded, to look at it.”

“These boats will not only get up and down Lynn Canal better and bring more people up and down Lynn Canal, but they’ll be smaller boats,” said Roemmich, who is an at-large member of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board.

Roemmich also addressed questions that some skeptics have raised about the planned shuttle ferries’ safety.

“The idea that our Department of Transportation wouldn’t oversee the construction of safe vessels is ridiculous,” Roemmich said. “Those vessels will be built safe.”

Dixie Hood, a Juneau resident who is active on several local boards and commissions, testified in opposition to the changes. She referred to the state’s argument that they changed direction on the ferry plans because cost estimates last year suggested the Alaska-class vessel could come in as much as $50 million over its budgeted total project cost of $120 million.

“Cost overruns are common for projects, practically all construction projects, and will probably result with this decision if the governor’s project goes ahead,” said Hood.

The ratio of support to opposition registered in the testimony that came in over the phone was sharply different.

The mayors of Haines, Skagway, Sitka and Kake all called in to criticize the decision.

“Prior to the scuttling of the Alaska-class ferry, we have understood AMHS to positively respond to our concerns,” said Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott. “And this, I submit, is the reason that confidence is up, ridership is up, revenue is up. It is just bad business to erode this confidence.”

Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell was among several callers who claimed the proposed shuttle ferries would not benefit their communities as the Alaska-class ferry might have.

“Shuttle ferries will not be able to serve Sitka,” McConnell said. “They do not achieve the intent of the Alaska-class ferry project.”

Most of the 21 people who testified by phone are residents of Southeast Alaska communities, although Anchorage resident Frank McQueary called to voice support for the changes and Homer resident Ginger Fortin asked that accommodations for handicapped passengers be considered in the ferry design.

Almost all of the Southeast residents testifying via teleconference were unhappy with the changes to the project.

Vicki Wolfe, president and chief executive officer of Kake Tribal Corp., compared the planned shuttle ferries to the M/V LeConte.

“I grew up with the LeConte ferry, and that in itself was a small, scary ferry to ride in the rough waters,” said Wolfe. “I, too, worry about the safety of the smaller ferry.”

Former Skagway Harbormaster Ken Russo said he thinks the ferry change is actually about the Juneau Access Road project, a controversial proposal to extend the road system north from Juneau toward Skagway and build a ferry terminal at Katzehin.

“I don’t believe that they’re really concerned about making the ferry system reliable and making it work for Lynn Canal or for Southeast Alaska,” Russo said. “I don’t believe that there was any planning into this. I think it’s strictly a political agenda to make ferries viewed as unfriendly as possible, and therefore turn around and promote the road.”

Haines Borough Planning Commission Chairman Rob Goldberg made the opposite argument.

“If the newly designed ferries are capable of operating daily, year-round, between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, there will be no reason to build a road,” said Goldberg, who said he supports having two dayboats serving Lynn Canal. “In these times of economic uncertainty, it will be very difficult for DOT to justify spending $520 million or more on a road if we have two new ferries operating efficiently with low maintenance and operating costs.”

While Kemp did not testify during the 105-minute meeting, he sat in the audience for most of the time, though he left several minutes before it ended.

DOT&PF spokesman Jeremy Woodrow stayed for the duration of the meeting.

“I think people raised good points,” Woodrow said after the meeting. “It’s great to see that people from primarily Southeast Alaska have concerns, and they want to make sure the department produces a good vessel.”

Woodrow said many people’s concerns will be addressed when the DOT&PF releases its preliminary design report.

“The public process will be heavily involved when we release the design and the concept report,” Woodrow added.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said she thought there was “a pretty good balance both ways” in Thursday’s public comments.

“I’m glad that people chimed in to testify, whether pro or con,” said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and presided over Thursday’s joint meeting. “I’m happy that the outlying communities, especially, testified. I mean, they’re the communities that are going to be directly affected by this, in addition to Juneau. And we’re anxiously awaiting the commissioner to come up with his plan.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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