Some 46 percent of general fund allocations for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities in Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposed operating budget are marked for the Alaska Marine Highway System, House Finance Committee members were told Monday.
That $165 million “slice of the pie,” as represented on a pie chart in DOT&PF Administrative Services Director Mary Siroky, is the largest component of general fund allocations for the department in Parnell’s fiscal year 2014 operating budget proposal, topping highways and aviation combined.
However, it does not factor in the nearly $55 million the AMHS Fund is expected to contribute to DOT&PF funding in FY14 — the department’s fourth-largest funding source, behind unrestricted general funds, Capital Improvement Program receipts and the International Airport Revenue Fund.
Responding to a question from Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, Legislative Finance Division analyst Rob Carpenter said in a subcommittee meeting Monday evening that situation is unique for the department.
“There is not anything similar to that in the highways and aviation,” said Carpenter. “I guess you could say that the Marine Highway System is our ‘toll road’ in the state.”
The AMHS Fund is classified as a designated general fund, according to Siroky.
“The designated general funds there are the revenues they bring in from passenger and car fares,” Siroky said during the Finance Committee meeting. “They also get a significant infusion of general funds as well.”
Siroky was responding to Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, who commented on AMHS’ share of allocations.
“Of course, the pie graph makes it look like it’s just this huge amount of cash compared to the rest of it,” Kawasaki said. He asked whether the AMHS takes the amount of its subsidy into account in calculating fare prices; Siroky responded that it does not.
According to DOT&PF spokesman Jeremy Woodrow, who did not attend the meeting, ferry tariffs were last increased in 2007, when they went up by 3.2 percent across the board.
After the exchange between Kawasaki and Siroky, Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, co-chairman of the committee, quipped, “Rep. Kawasaki, what you don’t see on here is the designated general funds coming from toll roads.”
Finance subcommittees were also in action Monday, holding meetings on specific parts of the budget. The Transportation and Public Facilities subcommittee met Monday evening.
At the subcommittee meeting, Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, asked recently appointed Commissioner Pat Kemp about the AMHS.
Herron referred to Kemp as “commissioner-designee” and asked him whether he was having second thoughts about accepting the job last month, in light of controversy that has erupted over the state’s decision late last year to abandon plans to acquire a proposed 350-foot Alaska-class ferry in favor of ordering two smaller “shuttle ferries.”
“Absolutely not,” Kemp responded immediately. He said of the change in direction on the ferry plans, “That’s something that had to be done. That project did get away from us, and we had to reevaluate.”
Herron then brought up last Tuesday’s meeting of the Marine Transportation Advisory Board. Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt sits on MTAB, which has an advisory function for ferry issues in the DOT&PF, as its representative for Southwest Alaska, much of which Herron now represents in the Alaska House of Representatives after last year’s legislative redistricting.
“What reassurances were you able to give (Marquardt) and others that we will have a robust ferry system from Ketchikan to Unalaska?” Herron asked.
“I don’t believe I was asked the question in the MTAB meeting,” said Kemp. “But I think what we have to look at with the Marine Highway System is we have to look at the backbone of the system as being mainline ferries, and they would run from Bellingham (the AMHS port in Washington) out to the end of the (Aleutian) chain. And then I think the most cost-effective way to fill in the gaps and run a more efficient system is to run hub-and-spoke systems, and that is done with shuttle ferries.”
While Kemp holds the title of commissioner and is referred to as such on the DOT&PF website, he has not yet faced a confirmation hearing in the Alaska State Legislature. That comes Tuesday afternoon, when he will sit down in front of a joint meeting of the House and Senate Transportation committees.
Herron declined to comment after the meeting on whether he was satisfied with Kemp’s answers, noting it was his first opportunity to speak with Kemp since his appointment and that he is representing ferry communities in the Aleutian Islands and on the Alaska Peninsula for the first time this year.
“I’ll continue having these conversations with him,” said Herron.
Of Kemp’s stated plan for the ferry system, Herron said, “It might work, but I sure want there to be a lot more inclusion in the public process with the people that will ride the system, and the communities it will serve are fully engaged in this conversation. I don’t want it to be a top-down approach.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.