Legislature, governor battle over ferry funds

Gov. Knowles halts trnasfer of ferry funds to Sitka road project

Posted: Tuesday, April 04, 2000

For years, the Alaska Marine Highway System has become an annual budgetary battleground.

Nothing's changed in 2000.

On Friday, Gov. Tony Knowles vetoed a provision in a supplemental spending bill that would have sent federal money for a fast ferry for Sitka to another project to build a road.

``He felt that the Sitka ferry was a part of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan . . .,'' said Bob King, Knowles' press secretary. ``This proposed road was not.''

Sen. John Torgerson, a Kasilof Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he put the item in the bill to ``slow the system down.''

He said DOT isn't giving him the information he needs. Plans, he said, keep changing. The department's cost estimates - including the projected amount of state money needed to subsidize the water-borne highway - are unsupported by information such as the projected cost of labor, he said.

DOT's original estimate for the cost of the Sitka fast ferry was nearly $32 million. For this year, another $8 million was requested by Knowles under a revised estimate. DOT officials have said the item is not a cost overrun. They've just developed a better idea of how much the fast ferry will cost.

Though Knowles was able to line-item out Torgerson's funding change in the supplemental bill, Torgerson can effectively eliminate the $8 million from this year's public works budget and block construction.

``They're going to have to show us some numbers,'' he said.

Also, a proposal by Knowles to use bonds to fund transportation projects around the state - including two new fast ferries for Southeast - won't be passing as is, he said.

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, said he didn't want to downplay Togerson's frustrations with DOT's responsiveness. At the same time, Elton said he hopes that despite the communication problem, the needs of Sitka remain the top consideration.

He understands that parts of the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan change. But not all change, he said, is driven by the bureaucracy at DOT. Southeast communities are involved as well.

``We can't let these problems get in the way of consumer service,'' Elton said. ``Plans can get better. I think the plan for Sitka has gotten better.''

Torgerson said he asked for a business plan and got a one-page spreadsheet.

Dennis Poshard, spokesman for DOT, said the department prepared a spreadsheet for Torgerson thinking they were giving him what he asked for. It included estimates on general costs, routes and which ferries would be removed from service. For example, the Malaspina would be removed in 2003. But DOT doesn't necessarily like that idea.

He said it's been difficult for DOT to figure out what Torgerson wants.

``That he is unsatisfied is news to us,'' said Poshard, who said the department has been refining the spreadsheet on Torgerson's apparent encouragement. ``He told us that we were on the right track. We've made every good-faith effort to respond with his request.

``Of course we're going to still meet with him, (but) we've pretty much given him what we're going to give him.''

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