A legislative proposal to restore winter fast ferry runs in Lynn Canal and the Prince William Sound received enthusiastic support from most who testified during a House Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday.
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Just over a dozen coastal residents, including town leaders hailing from places spanning Valdez to Juneau, testified nearly unanimously in support of the resolution.
Mike Catsi, of Skagway, told the committee how he now plans his trips to Juneau around Lynn Canal's fast ferry schedule.
Catsi, a Skagway City Council member, said the ferries - the Fairweather and the Chenega - provide a level of convenience "rarely seen" within the Alaska Marine Highway System.
But state ferry chief Robin Taylor noted to the committee the severe weather conditions that resulted in seven days without fast ferry runs along the Lynn Canal route this winter. The system's mainliners are better designed to handle large waves caused by poor weather, Taylor added.
Juneau resident Dean Williams said he would feel more safe riding on a ferry than traveling the state's planned 50-mile road up the Lynn Canal during the avalanche season.
The ferry resolution - which also includes new stipulations for improved scheduling - has garnered support from many on the House Transportation Committee, which is sponsoring the resolution. The only thing that kept the legislation, House Concurrent Resolution 39, from passing out of committee was a lack of quorum, legislative staff said Tuesday.
Taylor said the state will run the ferries in the winter if the resolution passes the Legislature with the funding needed to support it. He said the Fairweather probably could operate in the winter, but in bad weather episodes, it would be a "touch-and-go" situation. Taylor said the possible winter runs would give the state more evidence on the vessels' viability.
The resolution originated with a public outcry this winter when the Murkowski administration decided to eliminate future winter fast ferry runs in Lynn Canal and Prince William Sound. Similar resolutions asking the state to reinstate the runs have been approved by the state's Marine Transportation Advisory Board and Skagway.
The Alaska Municipal League's Kathie Wasserman testified Tuesday that the fast ferries are a "necessary tool" for the coastal communities in Southeast Alaska, helping them deal with their "static" economies. The region's tourism companies have suffered major disruptions to their activities due to last year's ferry route changes, others testified.
Committee member Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, said he would like to know how the economic perks from the fast ferries to the coastal communities weigh against the state's costs for providing the service.
That information wasn't available at the hearing, though the state provided an estimated cost of the winter runs at $3.4 million annually. "I'd like to be able to weigh the two issues," Neuman said.
The resolution, which also will be heard by the House Finance Committee, includes provisions to:
Create two-year fast ferry schedules.
Study the demand for and economic feasibility of the runs.
Provide mayors of the port cities with quarterly reports on the fast ferries' performance and profitability.
The state has never had a two-year ferry schedule. Taylor said it might be more feasible if the Legislature gave the ferry system a two-year funding allocation.
A follow-up hearing on the bill will probably be held next Tuesday, according to staff for committee Co-Chairman Jim Elkins, R-Ketchikan.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.