Senate Bill 24, which would add a 12th seat to the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, passed the Senate Friday morning in a unanimous vote.
The bill by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, seeks to split off several communities in the Kodiak Island Borough and on the western Kenai Peninsula from the “southwest Alaska” seat currently represented by Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt on the board.
“It’s simply a better opportunity to have the representatives from those communities to have input and to have something to say and to be at the table,” said Stevens on the Senate floor.
S.B. 24 would also amend the definition of “northern southeast Alaska,” a region represented by MTAB Chairman Robert Venables, to include the community of Gustavus. The Alaska Marine Highway System began providing ferry service to Gustavus in late 2010.
Senators approved the bill in a 17-0 vote with no debate.
The Kodiak Chamber of Commerce requested that Stevens introduce the bill, and Chamber officials have testified in favor of S.B. 24 at multiple hearings.
Executive Director Trevor Brown welcomed the news that it had passed Friday.
“I think it’s a good move. I mean, it makes sense,” said Brown, noting that the Southwest Alaska seat includes more communities than any other — 11, including four communities that would be moved into the proposed “southcentral Alaska” seat.
“I think it will help the different areas have a say in the future of the Marine Highway System,” Brown added.
The communities of Old Harbor and Ouzinkie, which are not listed among communities represented on MTAB right now, would join Homer, Seldovia, Kodiak and Port Lions to constitute the southcentral Alaska region under the bill.
MTAB Chairman Robert Venables also hailed the Senate passage of S.B. 24.
“Having an additional seat is welcomed and adds to the collective knowledge and expertise of the board,” Venables wrote in an email Friday afternoon. “Most of the MTAB is comprised of southeast members, so this seat will help bring a better understanding of issues in that area. The current board member representing that entire region has done a great job — but it is a very large geographical area.”
In an email Friday afternoon, Marquardt wrote, “I don’t feel strongly either way.”
“Kodiak wishes to have a seat on the MTAB that is specifically focused on them instead of a region wide focus, and they made it happen with SB 24,” Marquardt wrote. “The MTAB board will continue to look at the entire AMHS up close and from (40,000) feet as they work to support and improve a historically valuable Statewide asset.”
Venables also wrote that MTAB “has been open to community input whether (communities) were a ‘named’ port or not,” though he remarked that “obviously” Gustavus should be listed.
S.B. 24 has been transmitted to the House of Representatives, where it appears likely to be referred to the Transportation and Finance committees, just as it was in the Senate.
Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said of the bill Friday afternoon, “I don’t have a problem with it.”
Wilson added, “My only concern is all of the people that are on the board, they keep thinking we should expand service, and I think at a time when we are looking at trying to keep the budget from growing, we have to think about that we don’t want to expand service. If we can just keep what we have right now, that’s the best thing to do.”
Both the House and Senate versions of the state operating budget include cuts to the AMHS.
Of S.B. 24, Wilson said, “We’ll hear it as soon as it comes. … If it comes, we definitely will hear it right away.”
MTAB is tasked with providing input and review to the governor and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities on the Alaska Marine Highway System.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.