Leaders form united front on ferry funding

Posted: Friday, September 21, 2001

The Southeast Conference, with near unanimity, has endorsed a package of resolutions to improve the finances of the state ferry system and upgrade the region's infrastructure.

The conference, composed mostly of local governments and business interests, passed the resolutions at its annual meeting Thursday in Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

The resolutions will be the face Southeast presents to the Legislature, conference leaders said.

"This is the year that we go to the hill together and we get more money to the marine highway to operate," newly elected conference President John Conley of Ketchikan told members.

"As I see it, what the conference is charged with at this convention is very simple: If we don't go arm in arm to the Legislature, the net result is 25 percent fewer sailings to communities."

Conference members passed resolutions supporting bonds to implement the state's Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, which includes new ferries, and for sufficient funding of the Alaska Marine Highway System's operations, and to replenish the ferry system's reserve fund, which once stood at $41 million and is expected to be emptied this fiscal year.

But some conference members continued to have doubts about the economics and practicality of the fast, vehicle-carrying ferries the state wants to buy.

Craig Mayor Dennis Watson, holding several proxy votes from his community, was the only conference member to vote against the bonding resolution, but others shared his concern.

Watson, saying he has "extreme heartburn" over the bonds, said he wanted more information on the vessels that would be built.

Capt. George Capacci, who manages the ferry system, said the types of ferries have worked elsewhere and would be cheaper to operate.

"High-speed vessels are the answer to our travel time and distance of waters here in Alaska," he told the conference.

Other conference members pointed out that Southeast should be part of a statewide bond package if the Legislature approves one, and that the resolution doesn't specify what type of ferry should be bought.

All of the other resolutions passed unanimously. They include measures to seek funds for the Southeast Conference to study the financial future of the ferry system, to put forth a draft agreement for a regional agency to seek funds for and to manage a regional transmission line system, and to urge funding for a ferry to link Coffman Cove, Wrangell and Petersburg.

Resolutions also urged replacement of an old wooden trestle at Hyder, and construction of an international border reception center and historic district at Hyder.

And resolutions supported more government funds to improve the Ketchikan shipyard and legislation to promote more marine repair work in Alaska.

Besides electing Conley as the president, members also named Tom Briggs of Craig as first vice president, Murray Walsh of Juneau as second vice president, Maxine Thompson of Angoon as secretary, and John Pearson of Juneau as treasurer.

Thompson, Bob Ward of Skagway and Robert Venables of Haines were re-elected as board members.

The Southeast Conference raised $18,000 at the meeting for scholarships. The next annual meeting is scheduled for Craig.

*****

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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