New Transportation Commissioner Leo von Scheben on Thursday made his first appearance before the Alaska Legislature, where critics of the ferry system blasted his department.
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Von Scheben was testifying in support of the Alaska Marine Highway System budget at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Transportation committees.
He and other representatives of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities listened to harsh questions from several legislators, including Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks.
The new commissioner, who took office Monday, said he had "absolute belief in the importance of communication," and pledged to work politely with the Legislature.
In the past, the Murkowski administration and former ferry boss Robin Taylor had an often rocky relationship with legislative oversight committees.
Many of the questions and criticisms Thursday had come up in years past.
Wilkin challenged the amount of state subsidy the ferries get compared to roads, and he questioned the system's management.
The marine highway covers only about 1 percent of the miles traveled in Alaska, he said, but costs half the transportation budget to operate.
"My conclusion is there is a better way to get from point A to point B than the Marine Highway System," he said.
Deputy Commissioner John Torgerson said the ferry system was doing all that it could to reduce expenditures, but high fuel prices, retirement expenses and security concerns drove up costs beyond expectations.
Wilkin said he had a vacation cabin in Prince William Sound overlooking the route of the ferry system and questioned why ferries such as the Chenega were providing service to Cordova, absorbing a great deal of subsidy. He said Cordova might be getting too much service.
He also questioned why the ferry Chenega was based in Cordova.
"Is there a reason why you'd have it where there is no road?" he said.
Ferry representatives said that decision had been made many years ago.
Wilkin said that with competing services, such as airplanes and barges, there was no place today where ferries were the only transportation option.
Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, and Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, both sat in on the meeting, though they are not members of the Transportation Committee.
Afterward, Elton disputed Wilkin's characterization of the usefulness of ferries.
"I remember when I was 15, watching the first ferry coming into the dock. I had no idea how they were going to fundamentally change my life," he said.
They've made it easier for high school sports teams to travel, decreased the cost of goods and enabled the fishing industry to ship product, he said.
"There is a role for government in making this happen," he said. "That's why we build harbors, airports and highways. It makes our economies thrive and be vibrant."
Pat Forgey can be reached at email@example.com.
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