State ferry officials said they produced a schedule with limited service on some key routes to save money, angering a bipartisan panel of lawmakers Tuesday.
The Alaska Marine Highway System proposed cutting service to Bellingham, the only direct connection to the Lower 48, to a single weekly trip this summer.
That, and laying up the Kennicott every two weeks, would save the ferry system a great deal of money, said Dennis Hardy, deputy commissioner for marine operations for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, grilled Hardy on how the ferry operation plan had been produced, and whether it would meet community needs in ferry-dependent coastal towns and save money.
"Were you handed a number from above and asked to make the system work with that number?" he asked.
Hardy denied that happened, but said the cuts to the schedule were made to save money.
"It is all about funding," he said, but denied that it was a bare-bones budget and said it could have been much worse.
Hardy said people who could not book passage on the single ferry from Bellingham would be encouraged to drive to Prince Rupert in Canada, and take the ferry from there. He said he was confident most would do that.
The committee meeting was moved to a bigger room, and televised on Gavel-to-Gavel, unusual for a Transportation Committee meeting. Several other representatives who were not committee members sat in on the meeting, including Juneau Reps. Andrea Doll and Beth Kerttula, both Democrats; Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell; Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak; and staff for Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.
Rep. Woodie Salmon, D-Beaver, said he came to Juneau from his Interior community not supporting ferries but now believes they are crucial to the communities they serve.
"When we have a lot of money, this shouldn't be an issue," he said.
Salmon questioned why the management of the ferry system seemed to be in continual crisis.
"Something's not right here," he said.
"I'm so frustrated, just like you are," he said.
Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said the ferry system wasn't asking for enough money in its budget to operate an effective system, but was continually putting together a piecemeal, crisis budget.
The ferry route from Bellingham and across the Gulf of Alaska has been popular with members of the military bringing their vehicles to postings in Alaska, and now the ferry system will force those travelers to go through a foreign country to get to Alaska, he said.
New border crossing rules may make that difficult, he said.
The Kennicott, one of the two ocean-going ferries that can cross the gulf, is the system's most expensive to operate, and costs $425,000 a week to run.