DOT's credibility takes a hit in IFA dispute

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

The Inter-island Ferry Authority was established in 1997 by communities of Coffman Cove, Craig, Klawock, Petersburg, Thorne Bay and Wrangell. Born out of dissatisfaction with the poor service provided by the Alaska Marine Highway System in the Southern Panhandle, the IFA has produced a plan to meet transportation needs at reasonable costs.

A story in the Empire last Sunday shed light on a saga of betrayal. In 1998, recognizing that the AMHS does not have the resources to adequately serve all communities in Southeast Alaska, DOT commissioner Joseph Perkins signed a Memorandum of Understanding in support the IFA's efforts.

It now appears that the commissioner, Gov. Knowles and Bob Doll, Southeast regional director for DOT, have decided not to honor the spirit of the agreement.

Capt. Doll was quoted in Sunday's paper as saying, "If we had wanted it to be a contract, we would have made it a contract." He claimed that the 1998 memo was not binding. This is sad testimony on the integrity of a highly placed DOT official. He is essentially saying that a man's word is not necessarily his bond.

Duplicity surrounding the DOT's dealings with the IFA is placing a lot at risk. Officials at DOT are quick to seek out flaws in the IFA's business plan, but not so quick to address a wide range of flaws in their own operations and plans.

The biggest challenge facing the department is long-range funding. The AMHS is resting on shaking footing as the reserve fund nears depletion and support from our legislators remains soft. Questions about the long-term implications of the current administration's plan, or lack thereof, cast long shadows of doubt.

The DOT seems to be coming around to the view that the IFA is a competitor rather than an ally. This turn of events was evidenced at an acrimonious meeting between the governor and Bob Doll and IFA board members and staff in Craig last month.

Last winter officials of Southeast Conference visited Commissioner Perkins seeking a reason why he pulled support for a second IFA vessel.

Perkins spent a great deal of time explaining that transportation funds, federal and otherwise, were the department's money and that the only the DOT would decide on where and how the money is spent. He expressed resentment that another Alaskan public transportation entity would have the audacity to tap into his federal money pipeline.

Some months before the meeting, the IFA was forced to go around the DOT to pursue funding on their own, since the DOT and Gov. Knowles' office were clearly dragging their feet in following through on their promise of support.

Perkins also made it clear that the department had another higher priority use for the funds that were supposed to go to the IFA's second ferry. Could that use be the Prince William Sound fast ferry, a late addition to the Prince William Sound plan? Is it possible that funds were moved around to direct more money to the Dalton Highway, a key political focus of the governor at present?

It is disingenuous of DOT officials to criticize the IFA plan on its economic merits. It is merely a diversion for targeting the money to another project that better suits the political ambitions of the governor and top officials of the DOT.

The facts boil down to a power struggle over who controls federal transportation money. The DOT wields great political power and seems to be frustrated in its efforts to maintain complete control over the acquisition of funding. DOT faces the risk of seeing this absolute control change.

Greater risks rest with the passionate, enterprising Southeast Alaskans behind the IFA who have their reputations on the line. Ketchikan and other member communities also have a lot at stake financially. If DOT pulls support for IFA's projects, it could win in the end. If DOT ends up inheriting the IFA vessels by default, they get perfectly usable assets that can be deployed at a number of routes in the Southeast Plan.

DOT would stand to gain the ferries without the usual lawsuits their shipyard contracts seem to generate. The IFA also would have done DOT a great service by pioneering the type of system the Southeast Transportation Plan envisions: point-to-point day boats.

Bidders for the department's first fast vehicle ferry have dwindled from seven to three with only one company holding serious credentials.

The governor and DOT officials should put politics aside and honor the agreement Commissioner Perkins signed. The IFA pursued funding on the basis of the agreement and has played by the rules. The IFA deserves a fair chance at making a great idea work. Juneau should show support for its Southeast neighbors in the IFA.

Don Smith


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