Former Alaska state Sen. Robin Taylor's appointment to head the Alaska Marine Highway System adds to the cloud that has hung over Southeast Alaska's lifeline lately, and will fuel the swirling conspiracy theories of those who suspect that the Murkowski administration is sinking the system to prop up an expensive road-building plan.
A roads proponent himself and a frequent critic of the ferry system's management, Taylor was not what ferry boosters had in mind for a system in limbo with aging ships.
"His record of being an opponent of the ferry system is not comforting to me," Sen. Albert Kookesh of Angoon told The Associated Press this week. "I hope he's changed his positions."
It's the second appointment in the past year to make ferry supporters nervous. Last July the ferry system hired former Kasilof lawmaker John Torgerson to cut costs and draw up a business plan. During his time in the Senate Torgerson built a reputation for trying to slash ferry funding.
Taylor's record includes an attempt to strip $68 million from the burgeoning fast-ferry program and point some of it toward roads. "Do we need to build a Juneau access road or should we keep running a ferry up and down Lynn Canal?" he said in 2003 while proposing the shift. "Do we need the Rodman Bay Road so that we can transit people quickly in and out of Sitka with a connecting shuttle? Do we need the Bradfield Road (from Wrangell)? What about the Ketchikan bridge?"
Putting aside the monstrous logistical and financial hurdles still awaiting a Juneau-Skagway road or the Bradfield Road from Taylor's hometown into Canada, the notion of diverting ferry dollars that serve an entire region to a bridge connecting Ketchikan to unpopulated Gravina Island is troubling.
Taylor was an ardent legislative critic of the fast-ferry system, which as planned was supposed to connect not just Juneau to Sitka and upper Lynn Canal, but Juneau to Petersburg and Wrangell to Ketchikan.
Yet Taylor's hometown is as dependent on the system as any, and in his years of assessing and assailing ferry management, his views have not reflected a simple roads-versus-boats split. At times his criticism has targeted ferry scheduling and its effects on travelers and shippers. If he brings vitriol to that part of his new job, Southeast Alaskans could be better served.
The larger issue is that the Alaska Marine Highway System needs new life, and something to get excited about. It needs a cheerleader to help maintain its integrity while planning for and raising legislative support for a renewal as old mainline ferries get older. Much of Alaska doesn't care about ferries, but all of Southeast Alaska relies on them.
Bob Doll, the system's former leader under a Knowles administration that was the frequent target of Taylor's criticism, said this week that he remembered Taylor's barbs as being partisan; so it's possible Taylor's energy could be a boost to the ferry system now that his team is running it.
In an age when few ferry supporters are confident of having strong champions in high places, it will be Taylor's burden to show that that's what he can be.