My Turn: 'Discussion paper' on moving AMHS lacks careful analysis

Posted: Thursday, March 18, 2004

In its effort to find some justification for moving Alaska Marine Highway System headquarters to Ketchikan, the administration has made public an 11-page "discussion paper." Its author claims that it is inadequate as a basis for making a decision. I'll certainly take him at his word.

Administration arguments have centered on cost savings. Those arguments are mistaken. The claim is that $561,000 in lease costs will be saved by occupying the Ketchikan site. But the administration should be aware, one would think, that neither the AMHS nor DOT/PF pays anything for the space it occupies in the DOT building. The lease cost for that building to the state will not be reduced if AMHS leaves.

By contrast, the entire 10-year, $773,472 Ketchikan lease cost will be a new expense to the state. If it is paid from the Marine Highway Fund, it will result in reduced ferry operations. It is difficult to imagine how those figures can be construed to be a savings.

Similarly, the paper simply asserts that $240,000 per year is "likely" to be saved in lay-up and overhaul costs. How that is to be achieved, or how moving the AMHS to Ketchikan can contribute to that outcome, is not explained. The paper does not even attempt to justify that claim. There are many other examples. The paper states that having the AMHS in Ketchikan will enhance AMHS use of the shipyard. How that will happen is left to our imagination.

Elsewhere in the paper, 7-year-old evidence is employed to support the contention that communication with employees will be better in Ketchikan. That, despite the fact that some 251 AMHS shipboard employees live in Juneau, 186 in Ketchikan, and the remaining 230 elsewhere in the state. Here again, assertion is employed where there are no facts to support the conclusion. (Every employee, by the way, has e-mail access aboard ship or at home to AMHS HQ, and uses it.)

The paper estimates the one-time cost of moving employees and equipment to Ketchikan at over $344,000. That's probably a very conservative figure. Unless one is prepared to accept the guesswork regarding lay-up and overhaul, there are no savings. Repetition of that claim does not make it so.

There is a bit of probably unintentional humor in the paper. Its author reassures any spouses that may be out of work as a result of the move that "the opportunity for second incomes in Ketchikan is greater than that in Juneau." Again, no evidence is offered. I don't think the spouses will be any more satisfied with that imaginative conclusion than other readers are with the remainder of the paper.

As its author told us, the discussion paper does not have the kind of careful analysis that its subject demands. No opinions have been requested from the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, established with such fanfare at the beginning of this administration, nor from employees. The Marine Highway has a 40-year history, a multi-million dollar capital base, a 3,000-mile route, and is a major transportation network for coastal Alaska. Yet its future is being largely determined on the basis of a study which is, at best, superficial and at worst, misleading.

The administration has been at pains to portray the Ketchikan move as more than a whimsical choice. The "discussion paper" is a poor foundation for any other conclusion.

• Bob Doll is executive director of Better Ferries for Alaska and a Juneau resident.

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