Senate Democrats fought to add money to the state public-works budget Monday but got a tongue-lashing instead from Republicans opposed to funding more fast ferries.
The Legislature last year approved construction of a fast ferry from Juneau to Sitka - the first state-owned vessel of its kind. However, the Senate Finance Committee last week stripped $33 million in federal dollars for a second high-speed ferry in Prince William Sound.
Rampart Democratic Sen. Georgianna Lincoln tried in vain to restore the money to the public works bill called the capital budget, saying the vessel would recharge the economy of a region suffering from low fish prices. Lincoln questioned the wisdom of rejecting hard-won federal dollars for a project that would help Alaskans.
"I don't see how we can afford to concede scarce federal transportation dollars to another state by default," said Lincoln, who represents Prince William Sound communities.
The comments prompted some Republicans to attack the whole idea of fast ferries, a main component in a state transportation plan for Southeast.
"This fast ferry proposal is one of the worst ideas that's come along in a long time," said Anchorage Republican Sen. Dave Donley, calling the record of fast ferries across the world "despicable."
Wrangell Republican Sen. Robin Taylor pointed to a failed fleet of high-speed ferries built by British Columbia as reason Alaska should go slowly. The state should make sure its first vessel works before it approves construction of another, Taylor said.
"Those ferries are sitting in a dock in Vancouver, B.C., and if somebody believes they work really well, we can buy them today for scrap," Taylor said. "There's going to be an election held in B.C. about three weeks after we get out of this Legislature. Their entire government's going to go down over this one."
Juneau Democratic Sen. Kim Elton argued the B.C. ferry program failed because of bad political decisions, not because fast ferries don't work. The government acted as its own contractor and used the project to start a jobs program, dooming the B.C. fleet, he said.
"It was a series of bad decisions made by British Columbia and it should not reflect upon the successes that we've had with fast ferries in other parts of the world," said Elton.
The amendment and 18 others failed mostly along party lines. The Senate was scheduled to vote today on the $1.3 billion measure, Senate Bill 29, which contains $939 million in federal money, $111 million in state general fund spending and $295 million from other sources.
A separate bill for transportation projects passed by the House includes $35 million for one of two additional fast ferries sought by the Knowles administration. The projects would be financed through "certificates of participation," which would be repaid by future federal highway funds. The bill is in the Senate Transportation Committee.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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