A bill creating a semi-independent state authority to run the ferry system was moved out of the Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday.
Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican who has offered the legislation in past years, said the system should be insulated from the political appointment process to ensure continuity, stability and reliance upon professional maritime expertise.
To do that, Taylor would create the Alaska Marine Highway Authority, which he compared to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.
The authority would have a seven-member board of directors, including the transportation commissioner and six other gubernatorial appointees. They would serve staggered five-year terms, and the governor could remove them only for cause.
Taylor said his bill would result in "people on board who truly cared about the Alaska Marine Highway System."
"Management under DOT has become insular and is unresponsive to input from vessel employees and the general public," he wrote in his bill sponsor statement. "Scheduling is chaotic and the fare structure has discouraged ridership. The reservations system has been an abject failure."
He also said the authority could return to the original purpose of the ferry system, which he said was to interconnect ferry runs with "an expanding road system." Taylor has called for building more roads to shorten ferry runs rather than building fast ferries to provide zoned service.
Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the ferry system, opposed Taylor's bill, reading a statement often identical to one delivered by Transportation Commissioner Joseph Perkins when the bill was before the Legislature in 1997.
Capacci said the authority's board, and the chief executive officer it would hire, would be insulated from public pressure. "Once appointed, board members will not be accountable to the public."
Capacci also rebutted Taylor's assertions that there are extensive problems with ferry service caused by a lack of maritime experience. A survey completed last fall shows that 93 percent of ferry customers rate the experience as good or very good, he said. And the combined maritime experience of Alaska Marine Highway System managers is more than 500 years, he said.
"The ships have an enviable safety record, generally run on time, and provide safe, economical, comfortable and reliable transportation service to the traveling public," Capacci said.
A fiscal note prepared by the Department of Transportation says Taylor's bill would cost $388,000 next year and $1.15 million the following year, with a recurring cost of $851,700 thereafter.
The bill was moved out with the support of the four senators present, all Republicans.
Meanwhile, the tentative House Republican proposal on accelerated transportation projects deletes one of the two additional fast ferries the Knowles administration was seeking. The transportation package is based on selling "certificates of participation" that would generate immediate revenue. They would be repaid with a portion of future federal highway funds.
The administration already has identified existing federal funds for two fast ferries. But the contract for constructing the first one fell through recently when the only bidder attached conditions to its $35.9 million bid, prompting transportation officials to reject it.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.