My Turn: State supports Inter-island Ferry Authority

Posted: Wednesday, August 29, 2001

As a critical part of the comprehensive Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, the state of Alaska strongly supports the Inter-island Ferry Authority (IFA). We are proud of the success of our cooperative partnership in recent years and are working for its continued growth in the years ahead.

As commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, I was very disappointed that the Juneau Empire didn't take the time to get better educated on the state's support for the IFA before writing its Aug. 22 editorial, "DOT's Credibility Takes a Hit in IFA Dispute."

In fact, the state has spent $11 million in federal highway funds to support the IFA's first ferry that will run from Hollis to Ketchikan. Not only that, but we introduced legislation to give the Hollis Ferry Terminal to the IFA free of charge; are nearing completion of a new $6 million berth at our Ketchikan Ferry Terminal to accommodate the new IFA vessel; and gave the IFA over $5 million for construction of the first vessel and for improvements to the Hollis Terminal.

Even more disappointing was the tone of the editorial and recent articles that contained personal attacks against Gov. Knowles, members of my hardworking staff and me.

The Empire implied that the state has been less than honest in our dealings with the IFA and that we were not sticking to commitments made to them. Nothing could be further from the truth. We continue to support the IFA and will assist them with developing future northern end feeder service linking Prince of Wales Island, Wrangell and Petersburg. However, whenever federal formula highway funds are used, they have to be part of a plan that responsibly balances transportation needs in other parts of the state.

In this case, the state must balance the transportation needs of Prince of Wales Island residents with the need to surface roads in rural Alaska, relieve traffic congestion in our urban communities, make our highways safer, improve service to communities on the Alaska Marine Highway System, and that's just the beginning. Our statewide transportation needs list totals over $7 billion.

As you point out, the words "cooperate" and "support" are used in our 1998 agreement with the IFA. However, we must also apply common sense, sound business judgment and give careful consideration to other statewide transportation interests with our limited federal formula funding.

We will continue to cooperate and support the IFA and their second vessel. It is included in our regular highway program for construction in 2006. In addition, Gov. Knowles recently sent a letter supporting special funding for the IFA that was incorporated by Sen. Stevens in the Senate version of the federal transportation appropriation bill. Special congressional funding would not affect the amount of money available for other transportation projects.

The Empire may disagree with our schedule for constructing the Coffman Cove Ferry, but I hope it doesn't think the IFA should be exempt from the same rules that every other community must follow to get a project built utilizing federal formula highway funds. It's not a power grab on my part to see that the state's transportation dollars are spent wisely, it is my responsibility.

Joe Perkins is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

(Publisher's note: The Juneau Empire's Aug. 22 editorial was based on thoughtful research. The Empire stands by its sources and the assertions made in the editorial.

Commissioner Perkins' "My Turn" contains some errors. The state has not spent $11 million in federal highway funds to support the IFA's first ferry that will run from Hollis to Ketchikan. The $11 million for the first ferry breaks down this way: $2.4 million from the Legislature in 1998 TEA 21 FHWA (federal highway) funds); $6.3 million came from FTA (Federal Transit Authority, not highway); $1.9 million from a bond local match - raised by IFA; $200,000 from the Legislature in 2001 from the general fund; $1.95 million in additional TEA 21 money.

Our editorial did not take the DOT to task on the Hollis Ferry. It is obvious that the DOT would be supportive of the Hollis Ferry as it is in their best interests. The commissioner states that the IFA "gets" the Hollis terminal. The IFA doesn't exactly take ownership of the terminal, they just get to use it.

The "balancing" Commissioner Perkins mentions deals with priorities in the DOT's Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP). The second ferry was in the STIP for 2002. Political influences pushed the second IFA ferry out to 2006, which on the STIP clock is the equivalent of "maybe never." That's the issue. Placing the second ferry in a 2006 time line does not equal the promised support. The Legislature appropriated $5.4 million in 1998 for the second vessel and dock. That's when it was put in the STIP. The DOT changed the STIP without appropriate public process. The disposition of the $5.4 million in appropriations is now in question. Don Smith)



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