Lawmakers weigh money, management for state ferry system

Alaska Marine Highway needs $15 million in emergency funding to cover fuel costs

Posted: Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Directors of the state ferry system on Tuesday made a budget pitch to lawmakers that included plans to improve rider satisfaction and performance - at a higher cost.

The Murkowski administration's request for $135 million in fiscal year 2007 is up about $32 million from last year. In fiscal year 2005, the operating budget was about $99 million.

Several members of the House Finance Subcommittee said the demand for service is not being met in their districts.

"I feel like we are putting too much money into a system that doesn't work," said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines. He doesn't want to cut funding, but to re-examine the way the schedules are managed, he said.

Lawmakers say complaints are mounting from constituents who cannot make plans in advance because ferry schedules are unreliable.

During the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' presentation on Tuesday morning, officials did not present a draft of next year's schedule.

Former ferry system chief Bob Doll said if the department is serious about creating reliable service, it should design a new schedule that addresses the demand for service and present it to the Legislature to win support.

Robin Taylor, the system's current chief, presented a plan to improve performance by increasing the frequency of ports of call, meeting higher percentages of on-time departures and increasing on-board sales, which include cabin occupancy, food and beverages.

The majority of the requested budget increase accounts for a rise in fuel prices and a labor agreement made earlier that called for a gradual pay raise of 22 percent over a couple of years, Taylor said.

The department's director of administrative services, Nancy Slagle, said $15 million will be needed soon to recover costs the state paid in the summer and fall when fuel prices spiked.

"We're looking at basically running out of cash in March if we don't get that supplemental," she said.

The subcommittee will likely recommend funding the ferry system at the amounts requested in the governor's proposed budget, Thomas said.

The department shuffled the schedule this year to deploy its two fast ferries on shuttle routes between Juneau, Petersburg and Ketchikan. The move was unpopular with Prince William Sound and Lynn Canal residents, who were served by the ferries in summer.

"If you don't have stability, you train people into using other methods of transportation," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

Taylor maintains the best solution to improving transportation for Alaska coastal communities is to build roads and terminals.

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