Last Sunday's editorial commentary on the problems with the Alaska Marine Highway System generated a lot of interest. Support for revisiting the Southeast Transportation Plan is deep and growing.
Capt. Bob Doll, Southeast Regional Director of the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, weighed in with his response with a letter published in Friday's Empire.
His counterpoints were appreciated. To his credit, Capt. Doll maintained an even keel on the course that the Knowles administration has chosen for Southeast Alaska. He provided an eloquent defense for the concerns raised in our editorial.
We stand corrected on a couple of points made in Sunday's editorial. However, a number of gray areas remain regarding Capt. Doll's comments and omissions.
For instance, Capt. Doll maintains that a new shuttle in Lynn Canal can be operated for a third the cost of the Malaspina. He
didn't mention that reduced capacity goes along with the reduced cost. We'll accept that the department has done its homework on this and we look forward to sharing the comparative information with our readers.
Capt. Doll stated: "AMHS afloat and ashore staff have achieved minor miracles in their efforts to minimize the impacts on the public of reduced service this summer after the devastating fire that knocked the M/V Columbia out of service."
CLARIFICATION: It is true the AMHS staff has worked very hard to adjust to loss of the Columbia. However, the fire is just one reason for the delay in getting the Columbia back on line. A larger reason may be related to the number of alterations added to the ferry that may or may not have anything to do with the fire damage.
Capt. Doll wrote: "The AMHS will soon deploy new, more efficient ferries."
QUESTION: How soon? Three years would be an ambitious time frame.
CLARIFICATION: To date, the Legislature has funded only one fast ferry at the $35 million bare minimum.
Capt. Doll chose not to address what's happened to the $40 million that was once in the Marine Highway operating fund. This fund was wisely created under Jim Ayers' service as Director of Marine Highways as a hedge against unexpected costs. The fund has dwindled to almost nothing. In evaluating the true future operating costs of the AMHS, the implications of this vanishing cushion should be seriously considered.
Regarding the question of meeting new effluent standards as determined by HB260, Capt. Doll wrote: "Existing ferries can meet the new standards and the new ferries will discharge all their wastes ashore."
CLARIFICATION: It is great that wastewater concerns are addressed in the design of the new ferries, however, the idea that existing ferries can meet the new standards begs some qualification.
Existing ferries have three years to meet the new standards and the estimates to upgrade the ferries range from $2,000 to $7.5 million. It remains to be seen if the Legislature will support this cost.
Capt. Doll: "We have developed a transportation plan and a ferry concept that have met the approval of Alaskans."
CLARIFICATION: The transportation plan suits some Alaskans. Other Alaskans were forced to make a hard choice between ferries and roads in the last election, when the real issue was improving ferry service with the addition of supplemental roads as concluded earlier in the Southeast Transportation Plan.
The East Lynn Canal Highway was selected as the preferred alternative, and the one accepted by the governor. In July 2000, a very frustrated Mayor Dennis Egan wrote in a letter to the governor: "Your subsequent decisions not to pursue the preferred alternative and, most recently, to veto money allocated by the Legislature to complete the EIS for the Lynn Canal Highway are most disappointing. I believe that in the long run the well-studied Preferred Alternative would best serve the interests of ... Southeast Alaska."
Capt. Doll chose not address concerns about costs to refit ferry terminals to accommodate the smaller fast ferries in the amended STP. This part of the new plan bears further examination.
Capt. Doll: "The five original proposers have already spent some $200,000 each in pursuit of this contract. The Kennicott claim has not deterred those with money to invest."
CLARIFICATION: We may have been too skeptical in writing off the possibility that good competing bids and timely, cost-efficient delivery of the new ferry might happen. With seven prospective bidders, we should see better results this time around. Time will tell.
Capt. Doll: "For the record, the Juneau Access EIS is alive and well"
CLARIFICATION: Inquiries into the status of the Juneau Access Environmental Impact Study have revealed that the study is in a holding pattern on orders from above. It is important to note that the governor vetoed the $1.5 million appropriation to complete it and keep it current. How can it be alive with no detectable pulse?
OBSERVATIONS: People enjoy riding their ferries and Southeast Alaska cannot survive without the AMHS.
The DOTPF is well-staffed with many dedicated, seasoned professionals. From the terminal managers to the officers and crew, to the engineers and planners in the home office, the staff works hard at their jobs and are highly appreciated public servants. Commissioner Perkins, Capt. Doll and GM George Capacci have years of distinguished experience and are honorable men dealing with extraordinarily weighty problems.
Politics aside, big state projects are confounded by the shear imbalance of a number of regulating and enforcing departments pitted against the one department charged with planning and building, the DOT.
Add federal regulatory agencies and restrictions to the mix and the final recipe doesn't seem to render very good results. Oversight and regulation are important, but the system seems to be designed to subvert the logical progression from research and conceptualization to implementation.
We urge more open-mindedness regarding the transportation needs of Southeast Alaska and better communication along all channels. For our part, we will work hard to furnish our readers with as much useful information and dialogue as we can muster, so that they can make sound choices when the time comes.