State transportation officials defended the Alaska Marine Highway System's move to Ketchikan in a testy hearing with Juneau's state and local representatives Tuesday.
The announcement of the ferry system headquarters' planned departure from Juneau came last week, and members of state and local government and the system's employees complained they weren't given any information about the move until after the decision.
Department of Transportation Commissioner Mike Barton and AMHS Director Tom Briggs attended the House State Affairs Committee hearing, where they met criticism from local officials and assurance from legislators that they hadn't heard the end of the issue.
"Because there has been no hearing on this - (no) formal hearing - this is sort of going to be at least the starting point. I don't anticipate it will be the end of the hearing on this, to give people a chance to at least hear what is going on," said committee chairman Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau.
The ferry system's administrative offices and about 44 jobs will move to the largely vacant Ketchikan Pulp Co. administration building near Ward Cove, a four-mile drive from the ferry system's maintenance yard. System officials say the move could save the state up to $279,000 a year, plus a one-time savings of $562,000.
A February 2003 condition survey prepared by Welsh Whiteley Architects found that some offices and lab spaces have vinyl asbestos tiling, and that the flooring would need to be replaced if the space were reoccupied. The building is more than 50 years old.
"The existing asbestos reports should be reviewed, and a (hazardous materials) survey should be performed before any remodeling occurs, to ensure worker safety," the report concluded.
During the course of the hearing, Weyhrauch elicited promises from Briggs and Barton that they would request a hazardous materials survey and a structural engineering survey before a lease is signed. They also promised to ask the Department of Administration, which handles the lease, to ask the Department of Law to review any potential liability the state would have if the site contains hazardous substances.
"We're not going to put our employees in an unsafe building," Barton said.
Briggs said moving ferry headquarters to Ketchikan makes sense because work on the ferries occurs at a shipyard there.
Weyhrauch asked whether affected employees were involved in the decision. Briggs said employees were not involved.
"I met with personnel to put together a team to sit down and talk (with employees) about if a decision was made to do the move, they would have a question-and-answer period," Briggs said. "That was scheduled to occur last week but I was out of town the week of the first (of March) from the third (of March) on, and that discussion and that chance to meet the employees was preempted."
Ketchikan Gateway Borough Vice Mayor David Landis testified during the hearing that the old pulp mill office would be put to good use for the ferry system.
"This is the highest and best use of the property right now," Landis said. "This proposed facility and industrial complex is a very fine building structurally, and environmentally sound."
Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho decried the lack of public involvement in the decision.
"We are told that the decision, which was originally to be subject to some process that would involve both employees and communities affected, is now final, yet other than a discussion paper for which the state paid $3,750 there is no foundation for this decision which radically alters the management of the Marine Highway System," Botelho said.
Bob Doll, executive director of Better Ferries for Alaska, a pro-ferry interest group, said the discussion paper doesn't adequately explain how the move will save money.
"The discussion paper simply asserts that $240,000 per year will be saved in lay-up and overhaul costs. That figure was apparently derived by simply taking 5 percent of the annual expenditure for lay-up and overhaul and declaring that it will be saved," Doll said. "We can only conclude that the 'saving' of the $240,000 per year is fictitious."
Weyhrauch said the committee may hold more hearings on the issue. Rep. Jim Holm, R-Fairbanks and chair of the House Transportation Committee, said that committee may also hold hearings.
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.