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Former Sen. Robin Taylor, who once called fast ferries "a cruel joke," has been appointed head of the Alaska Marine Highway System, the state Department of Transportation said Tuesday.
Taylor, a longtime Wrangell Republican lawmaker named as a special assistant to the transportation commissioner in 2003, succeeds DOT Deputy Commissioner Tom Briggs, who resigned after being diagnosed with cancer.
The appointment worried some lawmakers and officials who worked with Taylor in the Legislature and knew him to be one of the system's harshest critics.
"Fast ferries are a cruel joke," Taylor told The Associated Press in 2000. He warned that the ferries would not run during bad weather and would carry less freight. Three years later, he tried to take $68 million out of the state's capital budget intended for fast ferry construction and give lawmakers a chance to put the money toward road construction. The funds were returned to the budget later that year.
"His record of being an opponent of the ferry system is not comforting to me," said Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon. "I hope he's changed his positions."
Kookesh also said he hopes Taylor's connections with legislators will help him secure money for the system.
Bob Doll, general manager of the ferry system from 1997 to 2000, described Taylor as a partisan politician, adding that it often was difficult to separate his criticism of the Knowles administration from his criticism of the ferry system.
"Sen. Taylor was an energetic critic of the marine highway system, and if he applies the same energy in administering the system, then I'm hopeful that it will in fact have a strong advocate," Doll said.
Doll said he hopes Taylor can find common ground with ferry unions and get the fast ferry Fairweather running again. The Fairweather has been laid up since January over labor disputes.
DOT Commissioner Mike Barton said that despite Taylor's past criticisms the new fast ferry Chenega will arrive in Alaska waters this year and begin service in late May to Prince William Sound communities.
He said Taylor is currently traveling by ferry from Bellingham, Wash., to Alaska to become more acquainted with the system's daily operations.
"He knows the elected officials, he know Southeast, he knows the Legislature and he knows the laws," Barton said. "And he's got a good mind on top of all that."
Barton said the decision to name Taylor to the position was made between himself and the administration.
The job is not the only one for which Taylor applied. Last week he said he also put his name in for the positions of Department of Fish and Game commissioner and for attorney general.
Taylor served as a district judge from 1977 to 1982 and served in the Legislature from 1984 to 2003. In August 2003, Taylor was appointed to the Department of Transportation as a special assistant to the commissioner. He said last week he's spent most of the time working on about 20 road projects around the state.
In a statement released by DOT Tuesday, Taylor said: "I want to focus on learning the intricacies of the system for now, so I will plan on talking with the press at a later date, after I have a better understanding of the position, the ferry system and its operations."