Ferry funds may be restored

Lawmakers near compromise on public works budget bill

Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

The full House should be taking up the billion-dollar capital budget bill today.

Republicans tout the measure as meeting their budget goals, while Democratic minorities in the House and Senate say the bill's public-works spending doesn't address Alaska's needs.

The budget is acceptable, said Rep. Ben Grussendorf, a Sitka Democrat, only if a bond package gets approved as well. Two packages were scheduled for hearings at the Capitol today.

``We have to have a school element in there somewhere,'' he said. ``There has to be one of the two.'' Without that, the public works budget isn't enough, according to Grussendorf.

At $1 billion, with about $73 million coming from state-generated general funds, the capital budget is expected to come before the full House for discussion today.

Amendments may restore some projects that didn't get in. Included among those projects is authorization to spend $6.9 million for the fast, vehicle-carrying ferry planned to run between Sitka and Juneau.

An effort to add the project on Thursday failed on a tie vote in the House Finance Committee.

The Department of Transportation already has $31 million for the Sitka shuttle, and is close to sending out proposal requests to eight qualifying design and construction partnerships.

Not having the $6.9 million raises a concern, and could have an impact on the process underway to build the fast ferry, said Dennis Poshard, a DOT spokesman.

The relatively small changes made on the House side don't bother Sen. John Torgerson, who was responsible for putting together the Senate's version of the capital budget.

The Kasilof Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said the House cut about $12 million in general fund public works spending.

``That was important,'' Torgerson said. ``Both sides agreed to it last year. They had the same choices we did.''

Torgerson, who has grilled DOT over the fast ferry, said he wouldn't block the addition of the ferry money if it's put in the capital budget.

Poshard said politics seem to be bent against the fast ferry and the Southeast Transportation Plan, of which the ship is a part. He said DOT doesn't know if the project will be derailed without the $6.9 million in the bank.

``We don't know for sure yet,'' he said. ``We're going to have to make a decision sometime soon over how to proceed. We obviously can't sign a contract if the bids come in higher than we have in the bank.''

Maybe the authorization will be put back into the capital budget on the House floor, he said. ``That's what we're shooting for.''

If the decision is to try to proceed without the extra money, DOT could do a number of things, including redesigning the ferry to get its cost nearer to $31 million, he said.

Poshard said he doesn't understand why the money isn't being approved, given the Southeast backing for the plan, which includes the ferry. He said the legislators standing in the way of the ferry seem intent to run the Southeast Transportation Plan ``right up on the rocks.''

``We're at the stage where we want to bid the project,'' Poshard said. ``Now we have to wait for the dust to clear.''

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