Brakes put on fast ferry

Lawmaker aims to hold up ship funds, saying department needs a better plan

Posted: Wednesday, March 08, 2000

It's going to be slower going for Southeast's fast ferry.

Sen. John Torgerson, a Kasilof Republican, pulled the fiscal plug on the construction of what's supposed to be Alaska' first fast ferry today. He said he made the move because he doesn't think the state Department of Transportation has a plan for the ferry, slated for runs to Sitka.

In an amendment to an appropriation bill before the Senate Finance Committee this morning, Torgerson diverted the $32 million in federal funds set aside to build the fast ferry to another Sitka access project - the construction of a road from Sitka to Chatham Strait. He said he will reverse his action if DOT staff convince him they know what they're doing with the fast ferry.

Only Sen. Al Adams, of Kotzebue, voted against the amendment. He's the only Democrat on the committee.

``I guess it's the only way I can slow down the fast ferry,'' said Torgerson, who is co-chairman of the Finance Committee. ``We need to know what we're buying before we get into this. The numbers are completely lacking.''

DOT officials told the committee today that they're on top of the issues Torgerson is concerned about and will address them.

Department spokesman Dennis Poshard said he's perplexed by Torgerson's assertion that there's no plan. The fast ferry, he said, is a key piece of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan that's been through a long

public process and has wide public support.

``We do have a plan,'' he said. ``We have a plan that we developed with two years of development with communities.''

Torgerson's funding change was added to the Senate's version of a supplemental budget for the current, 2000 fiscal year. The bill appropriates money for programs that are short on funds and unexpected state costs.

According to Torgerson, DOT has been vague about the first fast ferry, called the Sitka shuttle in the budget. The message from the department, he said, has gone from stating that the shuttle would run between Sitka and Juneau to saying that it may not work in the strong currents of Sturgis Narrows, which such a ferry would traverse.

Torgerson said there are indications DOT may use the ferry in Lynn Canal - running from Juneau to Skagway - rather than for the route initially intended.

Poshard said DOT has no such plan. Two other fast ferries are envisioned for Southeast, one linking Juneau with Haines and Skagway and the other running between Ketchikan and Wrangell.

``The first one is not going in Lynn Canal,'' Poshard said. ``The commissioner (DOT Commissioner Joe Perkins) has clearly never wavered on that issue.''

Bob Doll, DOT's regional director for Southeast, said today that a consultant's report stating the currents of Sturgis Narrows could undermine the plans for a fast ferry was conservative. In a month, he said, a 140-foot-long ferry will test the Sitka-area waters so DOT will have a better idea of how its fast ferry would work.

The Sitka shuttle, as envisioned, would be about 200 feet long and carry about 250 passengers and 30 cars at a speed of close to 32 knots. A bond package proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles includes money to build the other two fast ferries.

Torgerson said he wants to know how much the Sitka shuttle will cost to operate and maintain - and how the fast ferry fits into the transportation plan for Southeast.

``If this is all the information the Legislature is going to get, it's done forever,'' he said.

Sen. Kim Elton called Torgerson's move a ``political maneuver.'' The Juneau Democrat said he believes DOT will answer Torgerson's questions - or determine the Sitka shuttle won't work.

Rep. Ben Grussendorf, a Sitka Democrat, said he's heard enough about DOT's plans for the ferry to be satisfied. He said Torgerson's move was disappointing, but not irreversible.

``I'm not too happy about that, but it's early in the process,'' he said.

Before the amendment would go into effect, the Senate and House would have to pass the bill and Knowles would have to sign it. The Senate's schedule allowed for the possibility that the bill could be up for a floor vote as early as today.

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